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.


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.


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.


Tuesday 14 May 2024

Baudry Greene, Covent Garden

There are few things more important in the success of a restaurant than pedigree. If you are able to launch one good restaurant, you're more than likely to be able to make a good go of a second. And then a third, and so on. Well, up to a point. You don't want to spread yourself too thinly (just look what happened to Byron, or Jamie's Italian) but if you - and the people around you - know hospitality well enough to own one roaring success, chances are you'll be able to do it again.

Baudry Greene is the latest venture from the people who run the effortlessly enjoyable French bistro 10 Cases, and dazzlingly brilliant little seafood restaurant Parsons, all within steps of each other on Endell St in Covent Garden. I was expecting to love it, and I did, because everything that's good about 10 Cases and Parsons is on full display here too - a menu you want to order everything off, sparkling service and a very special atmosphere created by a room of very happy customers having the time of their lives.

But Baudry Greene isn't anything so straightforward as Parsons 2, or, er, 11 Cases. It's best described as an elevated cocktail bar, where a top notch wine list and sophisticated cocktails are served alongside dishes designed for scoffing and sharing, and snacks, such as these distressingly addictive parmesan and gruyere bites, which take the concept of drinking food and run with it all the way to Italy.

Even ostensibly straightforward things like popcorn, served warm and crisp, are better than you might hope to expect given they're a freebie served to every table. And roasted almonds, toasted shatteringly fresh, come with a dusting of rosemary salt which means you absolutely can't stop until the bowl is clean.

But joy is to be found at all stages of the menu. A house-baked mini pretzel comes alongside a blinding white taramasalata which is easily the equal of anything served at Quality Chop House or indeed Parsons, two of the finest tarama-peddlers in the capital.

Picked crab salad was again, as you might expect from the people involved with Parsons, a masterclass in how to make the most of the best British brown crab. Spiked with chilli and dressed with a lovely balanced vinaigrette, it was just about as good a crab salad as you could hope for. Plenty of the good stuff, too, for £19.

You know a bit of beef is high quality when even cold it tastes great. And although you couldn't tell at first, tagliata had an extremely generous amount of it, hidden under a layer of rocket and shaved parmesan, all adding up to a very enjoyable secondo. Foccacia, studded with slices of potato, was a variation I'm now very much converted to. A Puglian thing, apparently.

Last of the savoury dishes - though definitely not least - was a little pot of salmon roe with superb warm blini, which I think lasted about 30 seconds before it had all been polished off. I'm increasingly coming round to the idea that salmon roe is - in most cases - preferable to "real" caviar, the latter's return very rarely living up to the outrageous price point it usually demands. Of course, if anyone disagrees with this hypothesis I'm more than willing to accept any amount of top-end caviar if you feel like trying to change my mind.

The only item that didn't impress very much were these gildas, the anchovy element being rather dry and mealy, indicating perhaps they'd been sitting around a while or just didn't utilise very good anchovies. Unfortunately - for Baudry Greene, not me - I'd just come back from the anchovy capital of Catalonia, L'Escala, so I'd been a bit spoiled in this department in recent days. The pickled chilli was nice though.

We were told that the kitchen was headed by professional pastry chefs, and so the quality heart-meltingly lovely honey cake, layered with cream and biscuit and topped with honeycomb, made perfect sense. Just as good was a rhubarb millefuille, which boasted a bewildering number of techniques, from rhubarb jam to stewed rhubarb to vanilla custard, all held together by fantastic light layers of caramelised puff pastry.

The bill, which included a bottle of Muscadet, came to £56pp, absolutely bang in the middle of what you should be paying for this quality of operation in 2024, and we left very happy indeed. In fact, we would have left very happy indeed even without the couple of home made choc ices they sent us on our way with, one prune and Armagnac and one involving cherries I think, which I mention both in the interests of full disclosure (you tend to be on good terms with owners of restaurants you never stop lavishing praise on) and also because they were bloody brilliant - a reason to go back to all by themselves.

Perhaps Baudry Greene was always going to be good. Those in charge were hardly about to have suddenly lost their ability to run a solid operation, and I was hardly about to turn my nose up at their efforts. But the place is notable not just for being incredibly successful on its own terms but also for being a genuine sidestep from its sister restaurants, despite clearly exploiting the talents for sourcing, cooking and service that are in the family tradition. It is, in short, another great place in which to spend your time and money in the capital.


Tuesday 7 May 2024

YiQi, Chinatown

As any self-respecting 2024 London restaurant-goer knows, the trend in Asian cuisine is towards regional specification. You're not just Thai, you're Northern Thai/Isarn. You're either selling Tokyo ramen or Sapporo Miso or Kyoto-style Kaiseki. And if you're Chinese, are you Shaanxi or Xinjiang or Sichuan? No of course you can't mix and match. You wouldn't want people to think you don't know what you're doing, do you?

It seems YiQi didn't get that particular memo. Unashamedly - in their words - "Pan Asian", the influences on the menu at this busy little Chinatown spot skit from Indonesia to Thailand to China, with brief stops in Japan and Malaysia along the way. And when they do settle on a style, for example pork with preserved beancurd, they are likely to zhuzh it up with Iberico pork, or elsewhere make use of premium USDA beef. It all has the potential to be a complete and utter mess.

And yet, it isn't. And that's because everything we tried at YiQi, despite or because of the lack of regional coherence, was at least enjoyable and often extraordinary. The kitchen team are, I'm told, ex-Hakkasan and Yauatcha, which means they have a pretty solid track record in making the kind of food London likes to eat (and, it has to be said, at prices to make them wince). And the very first dish to arrive meant serious business - a "Cordyceps" (there's one for the Last of Us fans) flower chicken salad, arriving prettily in a tube of bamboo and tasting of rich chicken and silky mushroom.

Stir fried clams came with the kind of punchy, salty sauce that would have made the telephone directory edible, and we had a great time polishing them off despite the slightly troubling knowledge that had we been paying this small plate of what is usually fairly inexpensive seafood would have cost £20.50. And to be frank, the yuzu-chilli sauce they came with was so powerful, the dish would hardly had been any less enjoyable if it had only contained stir-fried vegetables - the clams were a bit overwhelmed.

Charcoal-grilled chicken wings were at a slightly more normal price point of £13.80 for 6, and had an absolutely superb texture - a good bite inside, and a delicate crunch to the skin. Just touched by the grill enough to give them a good colour without being overwhemingly smoky, they were a short masterclass in how to prepare chicken wings and I enjoyed them very much.

It's worth stressing - again - that all of the food was at least good, and in the case of this bowl of "Hometown Four Kings" vegetable stir, fry, genuinely impressive. I'd never (to my knowledge at least) tried "stink beans" before, pulses the size and shape of broad beans but with an amazing deep vegetal flavour quite unlike anything else, and were a real revelation. In fact the whole dish was extremely good, a thick miso-enhanced (I think) sauce coating pieces of aubergine, green beans and okra (amongst others) which I would consider a must-order if you make your own trip to YiQi.

Whether or not you do head to YiQi of course rather depends on your attitude to their menu pricing. Malay lamb chops were superb - sous-vided to a yielding chew but flame-licked on charcoal to give them colour and texture - and cost £25.80 for four. Maybe complaining about restaurant prices in central London in 2024 is a bit like shouting into a hurricane but I can't help feeling that you don't quite get your money's worth. Plus our menu was stamped ominously with the words "SOFT LAUNCH", hinting that these numbers could eventually creep even higher.

Anyway, look, their restaurant, their rules. They deserve plenty of credit for using the words "Pan Asian" not attached horrifyingly to the word "buffet", and for a genuinely innovative and exciting menu that draws influences from all over the place and still has a certain style and coherence. London certainly could do with a few more spots willing to stick their neck out and do things differently, and I very much wish them the best. This city is a more interesting place to eat thanks to their arrival, and you can't ask for much more than that.


I was invitied to YiQi and didn't see a bill.