Saturday, 27 October 2012

Tramontana: The Latest Offering from Brindisa

Before I go any further I should confess that I am a devoted follower of the Brindisa empire.  And it is now an empire.  What started as a small shop, a stall (selling the best chorizo rolls) and a tapas bar at Borough Market now extends throughout London. Shopping in Soho.  There's a Brindisa.  Milling around before going to the Natural History Museum. There's a Brindisa.  And now, heading for a shuggle in Shoreditch.  There's a Brindisa.  Well, more accurately, there's a Tramontana (Brindisa).

This latest offering from the pre-eminent importer and provider of Spanish cuisine in London is a little different though.  It is aware of its surroundings.  It is definitely a Shoreditch restaurant.  While there are the traditional cured meats and croquetas that you would expect from any Brindisa restaurant, there is also a slider (de rigeur for any self-respecting new opening in London these days). It is also more modern, less cosy.  A place to go for a quick bite to eat and some sherry before heading out.

We arrived around nine on a Friday night having been unimpressed with the look of the food at the Shoreditch Butchery.  A quick sherry (the list is reasonable if not as interesting as that offered at Pizarro and Jose) and some olives later we were being sat at one of the high tables - sharing with a four.

As is to be expected the dishes came as and when ready - first up some croquetas and lomito iberica.  The lomito was all in order, the croquetas were fine although a little wet for me.  Not a patch on Jose's version in my view - although in fairness the Fashionista preferred these.

Next up some Iberico pork with sweet potato puree and pomegranate seeds.  Separately they were fine, better together.  Pomegranate and pork is a great combination.  We also had some Mojama - dry cured tuna -  my favourite dish of the night.

Then the the slider made of black pudding and butifarra (a pork sausage from Catalan) - tasty, but the black pudding overpowered the butifarra-  and the fideua de sepia. Like paella, but made with noodles, it came with cuttlefish, prawns and aioli.  Unfortunately it hadn't been seasoned at all and was therefore rather plain.  Once we had added some salt, it improved.

We finished with some mahon cheese which came with quince and some sweet chutney.

Tramontana has been receiving mixed reviews- some love it, others think that Brindisa may have at last lost its way.  My experience was mixed.  The tuna was incredible, the fideua bland.  I suppose the all important question though is would I go back.  Unequivocally, yes.  There is a real gap in the market in Shoreditch for good food at reasonable prices. Tramontana fits in well.
Tramontana Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 October 2012

North Road: Moving in the Right Direction

We are led to believe that a restaurant is all about the head chef.  That being so, if a head chef who has single handedly built a restaurant, a whole cuisine, leaves, one would think that the restaurant would struggle. Even if the number two is made up, the place would be missing the spark that the genius of the head chef had given.  

I booked North Road because of Christoffer Hruskova's cooking.  Having trained in the same places as Noma's Rene Redzepi, he has built a small corner of Scandinavia in central London.  Shortly after I reserved, he left - having fallen out with his co-owner he is off to set up on his own. Cue concern.  He was replaced by his number two,  Rafael Cagali.  Would he be able to continue the work of his former boss, or has the spark, the flame, that brought the hallowed Michelin star been snuffed out?  In a word, no. Quite simply a spectacular meal.

We went for the seven course tasting menu (there is no a la carte menu on Saturdays). One of the courses to drop out was the venison in ash.  I had heard such good things about this dish but, after initially appearing to be inflexible, our waiter agreed to allow me to swap my hogget for the venison (the Fashionista had the hogget so we got to try both).  The other dish to drop out was the mackerel.

While we were still deliberating between seven or nine courses, along came some amuse bouche.  Some crispy pork, a pickled quail's egg, a crisp bread and some new potatoes stuffed with a cheesy cream. All were delicious.  There was also a sack of little bread rolls, freshly baked.

Next up, dry and raw crab with cucumber. The dried crab was especially good.

Then the sweetest langoustine I had ever had, balanced by kohlrabi and the umami rich trumpet mushroom.  A real delight.

The next dish was described by our waiter as a "garden".  You could see what he meant, a sweet carrot was surrounded by various types of radish and both were sat atop what we were told was "soil" - a great dish visually but the cream cheese at the bottom just didn't work for me.  You could see what was being attempted but it didn't quite come together.

Then followed perfectly cooked monkfish, celeriac puree, sea aster and a seaweed foam.  Sea aster was a new one on me - a plant that thrives on salt marshes in Northern Europe.  It's slightly chewy texture complemented the monkfish. 

Then the meat course- the Fashionista's hogget was tender, served with earthy beets.  The violet flowers, beautiful as they were, didn't add much.  My venison was like an ashtray,  in a good way, like gunpowder tea but gamey. Fantastic.

Then came an additional course, a palate cleanser- wild celery granita with whipped yoghurt.  Weird combination, but it worked.  Like, really worked. Fresh, zingy, a real treat.

Then "hay and sea buckthorn" - I am not sure where the "hay" was but the buckthorn was deliciously sweet, the reindeer shape in the middle was a crisp malted biscuit.

Second last was what was described simply as "Kentish strawberries".  What came was fresh strawberries, a strawberry sorbet, strawberry marshmallows and a buttermilk parfait.  Perfect.

To end were some more marshmallows and sweets.  We were also given fully edible tree, about a foot high, made of biscuit, the leaves made of candy floss, the soil edible too.  Sadly in my excitement at this treat to end all treats I forgot to take any pictures.

So has North Road lost it.  There was some chatter that the people over at Michelin might take away the star until Cagali had proved himself in his own right.  I don't think that will be necessary.  It was by far and away the highlight of my recent Michelin splurge.  L'Autre Pied was too contrived, The River Cafe over-priced, Club Gascon simply solid.  North Road is exciting, fresh.  Its the kind of place you leave smiling from ear to ear - who wouldn't if they hadn't just been given a candy floss tree.  

North Road on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 October 2012

Club Gascon: A Job Well Done

I grew up in Edinburgh. As far as I am aware there were no Michelin Starred restaurants. Whether that was because the frozen north was just a trip too far for the wine-swilling Michelin controllers, or whether it was because there was no food scene to speak of, I will never know (I suspect the latter though). Now there are 6. Still exclusive nonetheless.  I have not been to any. In London there are over 60. Suddenly one star places almost become everyday, normal. The Great Recession has driven this trend on - whereas before a Starred restaurant would never have dreamt of offering a fixed price menu under 30 quid, now it is the norm (in fact Arbutus goes even further at under 20). Michelin star food has become accessible (albeit at the expense of some of the glam).

But while London as a whole has 60, the richest square mile in Europe has only two - Gary Rhodes at Tower 42 (the less said about that the better) and Club Gascon - perched on the edge of that temple to all things meat, Smithfields.  So with Friday upon us and lunch on the cards we decided to try out some classical French cooking at Club Gascon.

The place is France embodied. French staff, French techniques, even French rabbit - I am not sure how Jean-Paul the rabbit tops Peter but we'll leave that aside for now.

I started with the black pudding which came atop a disc of light pastry with pickled mushrooms and "artichoke crush". The pudding was well-cooked, the mushrooms, lightly pickled, cut through the richness. The artichokes were, unless I am very much mistaken, of the Jerusalem variety, a favourite of mine, but not to everyone's taste - I think this should have been disclosed on the menu!

Next up, rabbit with fennel salad and confit chorizo. The rabbit was juicy, expertly cooked! The two sauces- aniseed from the fennel and squid ink mingled well and the char-grilled fennel was delicious! The confit chorizo was but an afterthought!

Others had the onglet (that cut so in vogue in London right now). Now I love my meat rare - I think its a waste to cook quality meat anywhere more than medium- that said I appreciate that others do not. And I do not think it is a restaurant's place to tell a customer that they are wrong. So when one of my fellow diners was a little uncomfortable with medium-rare, I would have thought a place as esteemed as Club Gascon would have curbed its instincts and veered towards the medium- what came out was rare indeed. A touch of Gallic arrogance creeping through perhaps?

To finish I had the Ossou Iraty (a sheeps' milk cheese from South West France) which came with delicious nut and caramel crusted grapes, thin slices of toast and Verjuice (a juice made from pressing unripe grapes). A good cheese board. The black olive and chocolate desert seemed reasonably well received, as did the Plum Posset.  We finished with some delicious homemade chocolates.

So what to make of Club Gascon. French food, bags of technique, in the City, at reasonable prices. You can't really ask for much more than that, a thoroughly enjoyable lunch!
Club Gascon on Urbanspoon
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