Wednesday 12 June 2024

Pied à Terre, Fitzrovia


Since the closure of Le Gavroche, Pied à Terre is now the London restaurant which has held at least one Michelin star for the longest time. It first won the accolade shortly after it opened back in 1991, a time when fine dining meant French dining, and the term "gastropub" was still a good decade away from meaning anything (if, in fact, it ever did).


Not being a huge restaurant-goer in the early 90s (I was 13), I couldn't tell you exactly what kind of experience a star guaranteed you back then, but I have a feeling it was a lot easier to measure up places against each other when they were all cooking broadly the same kind of food. Nowadays a £5/portion duck rice streetfood stall in Singapore and a €500/head tasting menu joint part-submerged in the Norwegian Fjords both earn the same score, and how on earth you're supposed to compare venues so wildly different in every way is lost on me. And most of the time I very much get the impression it's lost on Michelin, too.


But back to London, and Charlotte Street, and to a smart and serious but friendly and fun (the best places can be all these things at once; they aren't contradictory) restaurant that's been making people happy for the best part of 35 years. Their new head chef is Phil Kearsey, ex- The French Laundry and Waterside Inn and various other top-end joints, and he's making his mark with (amongst other things) things like this fresh oyster dressed with lightly pickled bits and pieces and N25 caviar. As an introduction to a tasting menu you couldn't want for much more.


This is a terrible photo of a very lovely thing called "Eggs Kayianna", usually a rather rustic Greek breakfast dish involving scrambled eggs, tomato and feta cheese. Here it was transformed into a light mousse, which was so ethereal and easy to eat it disappeared in one single mouthful. To be fair, that was also how we were instructed to eat it, I wasn't just showing off.


Last of the welcome snacks were these boned and stuffed chicken wings, beautifully glazed and crisp on the outside and containing a scallop and caviar mixture that complimented the chicken without clashing or overpowering. Very clever stuff.


The arrival of the next dish of British heirloom tomatoes with tomato consommée and bloody mary granita is a good time to point out that as well as the featured omnivorous offering, Pied à Terre also do an equivalent 8 or 10 courses of 100% plant-based food. And though the lure of fresh seafood and duck liver (individually, or indeed combined) is, for me - currently - too great to ignore, this beautiful and powerfully flavoured dish is proof that wonders can be created for a vegan diet too. I particularly loved the consommée, studded with little drops of basil oil and with a stunning depth of flavour.


There was a lot going on in this next dish, so I may as well list it all out in full - Coal roasted Scottish langoustine / La Ratte / English pea / Grapefruit / Basil / Duck Liver Mignonette. And even that wasn't all, as on this particular day it came alongside a fancily trimmed spear of late season asparagus. Fortunately, I can't think of anything that isn't improved by more asparagus, and the rest of it wasn't the least bit confusing or overwhelming - it all made perfect sense, even the cold potato and pea mixture under the (sweet, gently smoky) langos which was a delightful surprise. Only the potato tuile on top could have perhaps done with a redo - it was a little chewy - although perhaps that was deliberate, who knows.


Morels with polenta, chicken skin, jus gras (roasting tin dripping) and sauce vin jaune was another neat summation of why people choose to eat in restaurants. Chicken and morels is a tried and true formula, and would have been worth the effort even without a stunning cream-wine sauce that bound it all together beautifully. Kearsey describes himself first and foremost as a "saucier" and each of the dressings impressed in a completely different way with the passage of each course...


...a case in point being the parsley-Riesling sauce with the next course, which did an incredible job of bringing together battered and fried mussels, bright-white and perfectly cooked monkfish, broad beans and braised fennel into a completely coherent whole while also being good enough to eat on its own. Which I did.


Saddle of lamb, so tender you could cut it with a spoon, but in a good way - it wasn't in the least bit limp or collapsy - is another great example of the kind of result only a professional kitchen, or at least a classically-trained chef, can get so right. Various seasonal veg came in puréed and roasted forms (the latter havingly lovely crispy bits) but again the megastar element was the sauce, a lamb jus split with basil oil, a most wonderful thing indeed.


Somehow I completely forgot to take a photo of the cheese course, so you'll have to imagine what Tomme aux 7 Fleurs (an unpasteurised cow's milk cheese with a crust consisting of seven different varieties of dried flowers) looked like, with its accompanying pickles, grapes and black truffle. What I can show you though is the striking carved tree trunk they used to serve the crackers, an impressive visual flourish.


Mint sorbet with toasted hazelnuts, chocolate and dried "strasberries" (a hybrid strawberry-raspberry which sounds a bit terrifying but tastes a bit like, well, a cross between a strawberry and a raspberry) served as a palate cleanser. I've noticed a lot of high-end places dropping the pre-dessert sorbet lately as being a bit old school, but there's ways of doing it - as here - that can feel contemporary and still perform that important job of resetting your taste buds between a rich lamb jus and a looming strawberry soufflé so that the 2nd half of a meal flows like a joy instead of being an exercise in endurance.


The soufflé, by the way - as if I need to even say - was perfect. A dainty little thing, nicely risen and packed full of strawberry flavour with no hint of excess egginess, it came alongside a shortbread dotted with strawberry purée and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.


Then finally - two (as you might expect to round off a menu of this ambition) petits fours of sticky dark rum and honey canele, and orange and cardamom fruit jellies.


A meal as good as this, at somewhere as important in the story of London food as Pied à Terre, is lovely in a number of different ways at once. Partly, it's great that a restaurant that means so much to so many people - least of all myself, first visiting in 2003-ish and having my little provincial mind blown by the possibilities of fine dining - can still come up with the goods decades later, delivering mature and technically impressive food (and, lest I forget, wines - including a particularly impressive Hundred Hills Signature Rosé) with the same broad attitude of hospitality that won it fans all those years ago but in a style of a thrusting new restaurant that could have opened this year. To feel so fresh and exciting 35 years on is no mean feat.


But most of all, it's just nice to sit down in a place that's been good (nearly) forever, be as sure as you can that you're going to enjoy yourself, and then do enjoy yourself. There's a huge amount to be said for consistency - restaurants that are up and down (or that lose their chefs every 2nd week) make the job of recommending somewhere to eat a complete minefield. I've lost count of the amount of times I've raved about somewhere only for the owners and kitchen team to have some blazing row a week or two later and for the menu to collapse back into lamination and sadness. Unless there's something seriously wrong with you (and, needless to say, you can afford it) you will enjoy a meal at Pied à Terre. You just will. It's that simple.


Anyway, enough talk. In short, it's my pleasure to report that despite everything, after nearly four decades of changing fortunes, after fires and global pandemics, after almost everything else about the way that Londoners eat has changed almost beyond recognition, Pied à Terre is still a restaurant worth its weight in gold. Here's to another 35 years.

9/10

I was invited to Pied à Terre and didn't see a bill. Set menu prices start at £65 and go up to £150 for the full 10-course blowout.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

Restaurant Dominic Chapman, Henley-on-Thames


This isn't going to be a very long post because, well, it wasn't a very long lunch. Sometimes you want to spend all day cooing over a tasting menu, getting through way too many bottles of wine and ending up leaving just as the next set of guests are arriving for dinner. Sometimes - quite often, in fact, in my case - that is very much what you want.


But then some other times, you want one or two courses, a glass of well-chosen fizz, and to then head off for a day in the sun. That's not to say Restaurant Dominic Chapman isn't a lovely place to hang around - it's the flagship restaurant of the very smart Relais Henley-on-Thames, which can boast some buildings dating back to the 14th century, and has for the best part of the last 300 years been a hotel right on the banks of the river. There's a plush dining room with conservatory opening on to an expansive, sun-drenched (at least on this day it was) courtyard, but I recommend you get the best of both worlds by sitting on the soft furniture just by the open doors, which still feels quite al-fresco.


As I said, we skipped starters and dove straight into mains. House burger was very nicely done, with a huge lump of lovely crumbly beef and what felt very much like a kind of custom house dressing somewhere between mayonnaise and a Caesar dressing. Fries were perfect - crunchy and golden and moreish, and were very swiftly all hoovered up. They make their own actual mayonnaise, too, which as any Belgian will tell you is the best thing to dip chips into.


I've been served enough dry, mealy, overcooked duck in my time to know that to get it as good as this - tender as you like, pink in the middle, with just a touch of crunch on the skin and a good thick, salty, rich sauce - requires proper kitchen skills. And this might be a good idea to talk about the titular Dominic Chapman, who I first bumped into cooking at the (now sadly departed) Royal Oak Paley Street. He then spent a good few years touring round some of the best kitchens in east Berkshire - the Beehive in White Waltham, the Crown at Burchett's Green - before finally opening this, his own place, with his own name above the door. His is a well-practiced and classically trained kitchen, and the years of experience shines through in every dish.


We were so impressed, in fact, that we decided to stick around for desserts. Both were basically fautless in that English country gastropub style, a sticky toffee pudding all gooey and syrupy, and a superb treacle tart, each served with lovely soft house ice cream. I perhaps would have liked to detect a bit more (in fact, any) advertised honeycomb in the treacle tart ice cream as it's one of my favourite things in the world, but maybe they forgot. Anyway, no real harm done.


The bill came to £94.60, which I realise isn't super cheap but then this is Henley, in rather plush surroundings, and did include a very nice glass of Rathfinny fizz (Sussex). I also notice that their website lists a £20 for two courses (£25 for three) lunch menu which we weren't offered, so this might just be weekdays. Either way, it is possible to eat here on more of a budget, just as it's equally possible to have four full courses, go HAM on the wine list and spend all day here. All approaches are valid.


However you approach your time at the Relais though - and plenty of people were just doing drinks and snacks in the courtyard, which also seemed positively encouraged - I can't imagine you're likely to come away disappointed. A kitchen as accomplished as this can, I imagine, turn their hand to more or less anything and make a success of it, but serving crowd-pleasing Fresh-British classics in lovely surroundings for a decent amount of money is a surefire way to win yourself fans, just just from the lucky residents of Henley but much further afield. They've certainly made one of me.

8/10

Wednesday 22 May 2024

The Buxton, Brick Lane


Continuing a recent theme, here comes along another example of excellent restaurant pedigree producing a fantastic place to eat. The Buxton is a smart and buzzy spot halfway down Brick Lane, within trotting distance of sister restaurant the Culpeper which is also a lovely (if often wildly oversubscribed) modern British bistro with rooftop kitchen garden. The same guys also run the Green in Clerkenwell and the Duke of Cambridge in Angel, neither of which I've been to in many years but are probably still worth a look.


So, they've got the pedigree. And with that comes the ability to write an absolutely beautiful menu full of seasonal British-French delights, at prices that are scarcely believable (in a good way) in 2024. If this was a brand new restaurant in its honeymoon period, I'd have to caveat that with the possibility that after a handful of reviews came in they'd quietly bump up the prices - it happens a lot. But no, the Buxton has been open since May 2019 and has somehow survived all the way through lockdowns and facemasks and disrupted supply routes with (as a quick Instagram history check reveals) the same attitude to value.

Choosing from the chalkboard menu at the Buxton is largely an exercise in deciding which handful of dishes you can just about live without, then ordering everything else. We decided cheese croquettes with chive emulsion sounded too good to pass on and indeed they were lovely, all gooey inside and greaseless outside, the chive dressing superbly light.


Whipped cod's roe panise came as cute little square fritters of fried gram flour pastry, topped with neat folds of salty, smooth tarama. As you'll see even from the slightly murky photos (the bartop lights had a very strange orange hue which I didn't notice at the time) presentation of the dishes at Buxton went from charmingly rustic when appropriate, all the way through to exact and geometric when it made sense to do so. There was quite the range of techniques on display.


As if the chalkboard didn't contain enough joy, there were even two off-menu specials we were told about as we took our seats. This was the first of them - homemade bottarga crumbled over chalk stream trout tartare, with pickled radish, wild garlic flowers, herbs and who knows what else, so prettily and colourfully arranged it could have easily come out of a Simon Rogan kitchen. At one point in the evening I overheard one of the front of house mutter "wow, beautiful" under her breath as she picked up a plate of this from the pass. And if you can still impress someone with presentation of a dish she's probably been serving all day long, you're probably doing something right.


Asparagus - great big thick spears, nicely charred from the grill - came on a bed of brown butter sauce, best described I suppose as a kind of toasty, nutty hollandaise. We're right smack bang in the middle of asparagus season at the moment, and so of course they're on the menu everywhere but I'm still impressed with places that are finding some new way of showing them off.


I wouldn't normally have ordered tomatoes with stracciatella - I'm less forgiving of this kind of thing being on the menu absolutely everywhere than I am of asparagus, because I love asparagus - but actually this was very interesting, with a kind of sharp keffir lime dressing to liven it all up. Tomatoes were well seasoned too.


For £15 I was expecting perhaps one langoustine, or maybe two teeny ones - there's more than one restaurant I've been to in the last couple of years serving langos so small I'd questioned whether they ever should have been landed at all - but not here. Two giant beasties, with claws so big they contained more meat you'd find in a tail in some places, perfectly timed with sweet, soft flesh, came drenched in "fermented prawn butter". And if you're thinking that maybe they gave the blogger table bigger specimens than everyone else, I can assure you that our seats overlooked the kitchen and every other plate of langoustine that hit the pass was at least the same size.


Last of the savouries was a mutton chop, tender and full of flavour, with a neat little pile of pickles. It was very good, but once you've tasted the Cull Yaw from such places as Mangal 2 or Kiln, other types of mutton tend to disappoint slightly. Even so, we quite happily polished it off, and had no real complaints.

For dessert, rhubarb Paris Brest (or even "Breast" as they'd put on the menu and someone had tried to gingerly correct) which had an irresistable light, flaky texture and a good strong hit of rhubarb purée, and "croissant ice cream", apparently made by soaking croissant in water, making a kind of croissant stock, and then making ice cream from that. Maybe I've been lucky, but I can't remember being anything less than happy with any homemade ice cream in any restaurant in the last few years. And I'm pretty sure I'm not getting less fussy - places are just getting better at ice cream.


So, yes, the Buxton is good. Very good. Food in central London as well-chosen, intelligently treated and smartly served as this could - perhaps even should - cost easily double what they're charging for it. True, portion sizes are controlled, but it takes just as much skill to assemble two exquisite whipped cod's roe panise as it does four or six, and £15 for two big langoustine is vanishingly rare in the capital. It's a little tricky working out what our bill would have been as a couple of the dishes were off-menu, but if I say the food came to about £50pp, and drinks another £20pp, I don't think I'd be too far off the mark. Very reasonable indeed.


And I very much hope the team behind the Buxton don't stop there. It must have taken a heroic amount of steel and determination to survive through two years of pandemic after having been open barely a few months, but to come out of all that with an operation quite as mature and confident is an achievement indeed. I hope we see a few more tastefully updated East End boozers with a seasonal chalkboard menu and a nice cocktail list over the coming months and years, but even if they stay where they are for the moment, we've still got so much to be thankful for.

9/10

I was invited to the Buxton and didn't see a bill.

Monday 20 May 2024

The Urchin, Hove


As soon as the sun comes out on a bank holiday, it feels like half of London heads down to the south coast, and Brighton in particular. And though that town certainly has a lot going for it, not least a thriving restaurant and pub/wine scene that can show you a great time at all budgets, I'm afraid the thought of fighting my way through those narrow Lanes alleyways on the hottest days of the year gives me the heebie jeebies.


The next time you feel like heading to the Sussex coast, then, consider the short diversion to Hove. True it doesn't have quite the abundance of choice of interesting eateries and drinkeries as its big sister Brighton, but it does still have more than you've any right to expect, with the added benefit that you're much more likely to be able to find a table. And what it also has - and this is a huge plus point - is seafood-forward gastropub the Urchin.


Combining all the best things about a quaint old boozer with a skilled kitchen serving proper live seafood at reasonable prices is an idea so blatantly brilliant it's a mystery why there aren't more of them. The Wright Bros had a bash at their place in Helford, the Ferry Boat Inn, back in the day, though I notice it's long since changed hands and now serves scampi and chips for £17.50. The Oystercatcher all the way up in Loch Fyne is closer to the ideal and really does serve some lovely food, but its so remote it may as well be parked on the moon.


Taking inspiration, I'm sure, from certain London steakhouses, the Urchin have a menu of regular dishes that doesn't change much (if at all) from day to day, and a chalkboard of "specials" that get scrubbed off once ordered - think whole brown crab and lobster - organised into various different weights and price points. We started though, with a tray of Jersey rocks, superbly cool and lean, which arrived in two styles - au naturelle, and with a very interesting pickled walnut and crispy "seaweed" (Chinese-takeaway style fried cabbage). Both were great.


Oysters dispatched, it was time to turn our attention to the big boys (or possibly girls). £30 got us a giant brown crab boasting huge fat claws, served simply with a little clump of samphire. All the bigger beasties come in these clever covered metal bowls - think two woks hinged together - meaning you eat out of one side and discard your empty pieces of shell in the other. It's a great system.


If I'm going to be brutal I'd say that - unlike the crab - the lobster needed just a slight bit more seasoning, or rather should have been cooked in slightly more saline water. Not a disastrous mistake, and one I could have quite easily corrected if there had been any salt on the table, but there wasn't. Still, you did get plenty of animal for your £61, and the chips were wonderful too, crisp and golden and moreish.


We were having so much fun by this point we didn't want it to end, so added on a cheeseboard. Can't for the life of me remember what they were, but the four varieties covered all the usual bases, being a firm cheddar, a soft, creamy blue, a Tunworth-y brie-style (which was more than likely to have in fact been Tunworth) and a nice soft goat's.


With two pints of excellent hazy IPA (brewed on-site!) and a carafe of Albarino to help wash down the seafood, the bill came to £93 each - pretty much what you should be paying for this kind of thing. If you didn't have quite the weakness for premium shellfish, and weren't quite so determined to sample all corners of the drinks menu then you might get away with something like £50pp, but honestly where would be the fun in that?


We wobbled back to the station via the Watchmaker's Arms, a craft beer bar manned by lovely and enthusiastic staff, then fell asleep on the train home. It was one of those hazy bank holiday days where everything seemed to go right, and you end up wondering to yourself why all Saturdays can't be like this. The Urchin makes the whole business of cooking and serving fresh shellfish so easy and enjoyable that it deserves to be the template for any number of "shellfish pubs" (their own description of themselves) in any number of seaside towns up and down the country, and who knows, soon enough, perhaps it will. Fingers crossed.

8/10