Saturday, 29 December 2012

My 2012: A Tasty Year

2012 has been a good year: a year of burgers, hot dogs and fine dining.  The food scene in London has moved on apace, some great additions, but some sad losses as well.  But it is abroad where I had my 2012 moment:  Coi of San Francisco served up something truly spectacular.  This is my guide to eating in 2012 and tips for 2013.


Best New Addition: there have been some fantastic openings in the London eating scene this year - Jeremy Lee has confirmed his position as one of London's leading chefs at Quo Vadis; the march of Honest Burger has continued to Soho.  But my top new restaurant of 2012 has to be Duck and Waffle:  incredible food, breathtaking views and friendly, unpretentious service in the middle of the City.  And those crispy pigs' ears, wow!

The Eton Mess at Duck and Waffle

The Marshmallow at Coi
Biggest Loss: for me, the greatest loss of 2012 was North Road.  The Scandinavian outpost lurched from bad to worse, losing its stellar head chef in August, then eventually filing for administration in December.  I visited after Hruskova had left, it was my favourite meal in London in 2012.  Delicate flavours, wonderful presentation - the candy floss tree at the end of the meal with edible branches and earth was truly incredible.  Here's hoping that both Hruskova, and his replacement Raphael Cagali, are back behind the stove somewhere again soon!

Hay and Sea Buckthorn at North Road

Best Restaurant:  Coi swept all before it when I visited.  San Francisco had served up some incredible meals, but Coi took everything to a new level.  And this was despite having to wait more than an hour for our table!  A fourteen course tasting menu - I left feeling full, but energised and light.  I have a feeling that it will be a very long time indeed before I enjoy a meal as much.  Perfect.

Pea soup, buttermilk and nasturtiums
Biggest disappointment: the Witchery in Edinburgh had been on my to do list for at least a decade.  It has been near the top of the Edinburgh rankings for so long.  However, the food was such a disappointment.  A salt cod dish straight out of the eighties, tough beef cheek and staff that clearly wanted us to leave.  Needless to say I will not be back.

Looking ahead to 2013

Food trend: if  2012 was the year when burgers continued their inexorable march towards London domination, and when the predicted explosion in Peruvian cuisine failed to materialise, what will 2013 hold?   I think we'll continue to see the blurring of fine dining and street food -chefs from top restaurants paring dishes back and reinventing them for the streets. Also I see a move to cooking over wood, taking the BBQ bonanza of Pitt Cue Co et al of last year that one step further.  I can't wait!

Top tip: my restaurant for 2013 doesn't have an opening date, or even a premises yet.  But wherever Ben Spalding opens next will be the opening of 2013.  A bold statement, but given his record at Roganic, then the excellent Stripped Back (fine dining served on paper plates at a market stall), and the reviews that were coming out of John Salt in Islington before his tenure was cut short, I have no doubt his next place will be "the" place of 2013.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers:  here's hoping for another year of fun, feasts and fantastic friends.
Duck & Waffle on UrbanspoonNorth Road on UrbanspoonHonest Burgers on UrbanspoonQuo Vadis on UrbanspoonJohn Salt on Urbanspoon

Burger and Lobster: the march goes on

They say that you are either a Goodmans or Hawksmoor man when it comes to steak.  No one else gets a mention. But, while Hawksmoor has moved tentatively into the world of fish with its Air Street restaurant, Goodmans seems intent on world domination by lobster (and burger):  Burger and Lobster.

It all started in Mayfair earlier this year.  A simple concept, a menu of only three things: a whole lobster; a lobster roll; and a burger.  Everything is twenty quid.  Cue queues only the likes of Meat Liquor and Pitt Cue Co have seen this year - two hours wait, no reservations.  I think everyone in London has been apart from me.

Such was the popularity that before long an outpost had been opened in Soho, then St John Street, and soon St Pauls.  At last someone is expanding faster than Subway and Starbucks.  Not that this place should be put in the same category. Yes there has been expansion, but the people behind Goodmans are serious about their food - larger, yes, but the same emphasis on quality.

So, with no one else in the City between Christmas and New Year, I thought I would seize the opportunity to try out their St John Street restaurant. No wait, table for seven, delighted.

After a recent (allergic) experience with lobster I decided to stick to the burger. The burger is finely ground -served with lettuce, bacon, cheese and tomato.  The meat had great depth of flavour.  Once I had removed the (over sized) slice of tomato, it worked well -with the tomato, there was no way to eat it. A good premium burger, but not a patch on the Honest Burgers or Lucky Chips of this world for me.

Others had the lobster roll - brioche stuffed with lobster meat and Japanese mayo - and the whole lobster.  Serving lobster, cooked simply, at a price everyone can afford, a great achievement and a real step forward in the London food scene.  For so long the king of the crustaceans been overpriced - available only to those with the dosh to afford it in restaurants or the knowledge to cook it at home.

The expansion goes on for Burger and Lobster - a great concept restaurant.  Now that London has a taste for lobsters, their march outwards from Mayfair seems unstoppable. Keep it up!

Burger & Lobster on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Bread Street Kitchen: Nothing Exceptional

I wrote recently about my trepidation when visiting restaurants set up by absent celebrity chefs in areas where the rent would cripple a mid-sized African country.  Wheelers surprised.   For while Marco Pierre White was most certainly not behind the stove, the cooking was mostly without fault.  And so, despite its location at St Pauls and Gordon Ramsey's name above the door, I was optimistic about my visit to Bread Street Kitchen.

Set in the glass and metal monolith that is the One New Change shopping center  the place is cavernous - table upon booth of suited and booted groups (of almost exclusively men).  This is a business place.

The menu covers all bases - from grilled meats to seafood, pasta to burgers.  I settled on the burger, that great barometer of quality.  Out of a table of  nine, all but one either went for the burger or the pork belly.  That may have been chance.  Although I suspect that it may have been driven by price.  The burger, 13 quid, with a couple of sides at 3 to 4 quid each, topped out at 20.  The belly was the second cheapest on the menu, 16 without sides.  The one who thought outside the box had the steak, 28 quid.  For those kind of prices I could have been sat in Hawksmoor - that is a high standard for any restaurant to set themselves against.

The burger was made of short rib. It was certainly beefy, but that is about as far as it went.  Overcooked and underseasoned.  It lagged behind the many other excellent burgers you can get in London.

On the side we had carrot and onion coleslaw, nothing special.  Triple cooked chips were crispy and fluffy.  Mac 'n' cheese was sloppy, wet, not good at all.

The pork belly looked as though it had been burnt, but I was assured that it was very good indeed.  Crispy crackling, meat which melted in the mouth.

Bread Street Kitchen is a restaurant for the City.  The food is expensive and inoffensive.  It confounds me how restaurants which would fail in Soho, thrive in the Square Mile.  But they do. Bread Street Kitchen is one of those.

Bread Street Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Wheelers: Surprisingly Good

Combine the following factors:  a Mayfair address (and associated rent) and an absent celebrity chef.  Generally not a good combo.  Wheelers  is a Marco Pierre White restaurant a stone's throw from St James's Palace.   Things were not looking good.  The reviews I checked supported my scepticism:  Hardens said"if there are any attractions to eating here, our visit failed to discern them". I was concerned.  We were meant to be impressing the client, not scaring them away!

The menu is dominated by fish - a nod to a historic restaurant on the same site (albeit not run by Marco Pierre White).  There is a reasonable lunch menu priced at two courses for 18, three for 22.  The a la carte is significantly more - we mixed and matched.

I started with potted duck with peppercorn - moist duck with a hit of pepper.  The accompanying  sourdough was good.  Others had the prawn cocktail and the beetroot and goats cheese salad - both were less engaging..

For main I had the wing of Skate and snails.  Classic combination, perfectly cooked, reasonably priced at 17 quid.  On the side we had excellent triple-cooked chips and some (heavy) cauliflower cheese - the flour in the white sauce had not been cooked out, a basic mistake I would not have expected.

The Dover Sole was the other dish of choice - again a well executed dish, although expensive at 30 pounds.

So was my fear misplaced?  Absolutely.  Hardens and Zagat should reconsider their scathing reviews from a few years ago.  There is nothing new about what Wheelers are doing, but what they are doing, they are doing well.  Don't expect fireworks and do bring your expense account - you will leave smiling.

Wheeler's on Urbanspoon

Caravan King's Cross

King's Cross is undergoing quite the transformation.  The renovation of St Pancreas is now old news. King's Cross Station itself has been returned to former glories.  And now it is the turn of the surrounding area. Buildings are popping up everywhere, warehouses are being converted.  And, as with any rejuvenation, improve the fabric of the place and the standard of restaurants will increase as well.  Where once Upper Crust seemed like a treat, now Kerb (formerly Eat Street) serves up some of the best street food in town.

One of those which has set up home in a converted warehouse in the area this year is Caravan - the antipodean eatery also of Exmouth Market, where it has been a resounding success.  

We visited their King's Cross outpost on a sunny Sunday, in desperate need of some brunch.  It had been described by a friend as "the best place in London for brunch" - high praise indeed.  After a fifteen minute wait at the bar (where we were confronted by the least interested barista I have ever encountered - I suspect a large Saturday night may have been at fault) we were sat at a high table in the middle of the buzzing restaurant.  Great atmosphere - all coffees, chit chatter and Sunday newspapers.

The menu is diverse, with perhaps a leaning to the American south - there are grits, corn fritters and  French toast.

After some delays, and a rather confused waitress, my aubergine, yoghurt, poached eggs, sumac and (for en extra 50p) soutsouki sausage arrived.  Everything was fine, although I would have preferred the aubergine to have been warm.  It didn't get me particularly excited.     

The Fashionista had the raclette and spinach French toast with bacon and watercress. It all started so well but, after a while, the Fashionista lost interest - it was all just a bit monotonous.

The food at Caravan was fine.  It was better than middle of the road.  But, the brunch market is pretty keen in London right now.  Bistrotheque and Modern Pantry have both served up real treats in recent weeks. And, given that the transformation of Kings Cross is not yet complete, there is not much (bar a walk along the Regents Canal) to tempt me there.  Food that is simply "fine" just wont cut it.  I don't think I'll be back.

Caravan Kings Cross on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Koya: a Trend Setter

London is a trendy city.  I don't mean that to sound like it is fashionable.  It is, but that is not what I mean.  Rather, it is full of trends.  Things come and go in the blink of an eye.  Everyone is always looking for the next "thing".  Burgers have been particularly enduring.  Fried Chicken and Ceviche more of a flash in the pan.  Unlike in smaller towns, the population is large enough to support these moving feasts.

The latest trend is for, how shall I say this, Japanese noodely soups - Udon and Ramen places are taking over (although I am sure that the Japanese aficionados amongst you are now standing aghast at how I can combine the two into one "trend" - aghast noted).  People are at last starting to learn that what is served in Wagamama is not worth the pennies - there is something better out there.

As with everything, they say that the original is the best.  And the positive grandfather of this movement (taken forward recently by Tonkotsu and Bone Daddies) is Koya - it opened way back in 2010! So, having recommended it (on the back of others' reviews) to two friends recently visiting London, I thought it was about time I went along to see what all the fuss was about.

As a self-respecting Soho establishment, Koya does not accept reservations.  Such a bugbear of mine, although in Koya's case I can see why, people don't really linger over noodles so turnover is high.  Nevertheless we waited a good half an hour for a table - avoid 8pm!  By nine, people walked straight in.  First impressions were negative - waiter's response to a rough estimate of waiting time was bolshy, sarcastic, arrogant (some vague reference to knowing the lottery results) - an inauspicious start.

Once in we dived straight into the menu - it's simple really, two choices, then additions. Noodles, hot or cold?  Broth, hot or cold?  Additions included prawn tempura, mushrooms and walnut miso, beef or other daily specials.  There are also some small plates to top up.

We went for a mixed seaweed, hot broth/hot noodles, and a pork and miso, hot broth/cold noodles. Then we added toppings of a poached egg and tempura batter.  We also shared some roast duck.

The duck was served cold with a warm, mirin-laden broth and spring onions - very tasty, especially the broth, although perhaps a little on the expensive side at seven quid.  Great wasabi though!

The seaweed noodles tasted of the sea - fresh and vibrant.  Some of the (three types of Welsh) seaweed was overcooked and mushy, however.  The poached egg which comes in its shell - you crack it into the noodles yourself, how fun - didn't really work with this one.

I had the pork and miso with cold noodles.  In their cold form, the noodles really came into their own - you really started to appreciate the skill that had gone into making them (apparently by foot, as is the traditional way).  With just the right amount of bite, they were some of the best Udon noodles I have ever had (including in Japan).  The broth had a great depth of flavour - but one small pork meatball was a little miserly.

I guess the question is, now that I have been to Koya myself, will I continue to recommend it?  In a word, yes!  Next time I would probably pass on the poached egg and tempura batter - unnecessary additions.  But the Udon themselves are quite simply the best about.  

Koya on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Bistrothque: A Revelation

Saturday. 11am. The night before is still lurking -that "I had one too many shandies, I should have gone home after the second pint, maybe I shouldn't have had that third whisky" feeling.  You need something to save you, to bring you back to life. Brunch, that is what you need.  And not just any old brunch. Coffee, certainly, bacon or something else suitably salty (smoked salmon perhaps) and eggs.  Yes, eggs, those great redeemers.  And since I lived with the great Jenko, they must be poached, preferably doused in hollandaise.

And so last weekend I awoke with that feeling - a faint memory of ending the night with a Kraken rum over ice - I just wanted to try it, I'd heard good things apparently! We needed brunch and fast. But where: L'eau a La Bouche on Broadway - a favourite, but too busy for today. No, I needed somewhere peaceful.  

Hidden down a lane off Mare Street I was to find the haven for my hangover - Bistrotheque. A converted warehouse filled with the tunes from the night before, but this time being belted out not by Bose but by a baby grand piano.  Peaceful it certainly is.

They do all manner of things from early doors (the beef tartare and burgers looked particularly good) but we stuck to the basics. The Fashionista had a single eggs royale with a side of avocado on toast. All as it should be.

I went for the eggs benedict - salty ham, gooey eggs, tart hollandaise and comforting muffins. On the side, some peppery black pudding. Suddenly I was alive again.

You may have guessed, I owe quite a lot to Bistrotheque. They saved my Saturday.  But the thing is, I don't think it was the night before that made it. It was just a nice place to be. The calming interior, the excellent pianist and the superb food makes you want to stay a little longer. Another coffee? Perhaps a Bloody Mary? Oh go on then! Hello Saturday!

Bistrotheque on Urbanspoon

Mr Buckley's: A Mixed Bag

Sometimes I walk into a newly-opened restaurant and I instantly want to like it.  I am going to try my best to make the most of what's on offer, try and see the upside in everything, the silver lining in things which are sub par.  Mr Buckleys is such a place.

It is but a hop, skip and a jump from my flat, that helps.  The interior is achingly cool - stripped-back back walls, industrial lamps and candles create a low-light intimate atmosphere.  We were greeted by the owner, Phil Way.  He asked us our names, a nice touch.  The menu is concise, the chef has a good back story (Riding House Cafe, Elk in the Woods).  The ticks were mounting up.

We started with a couple of cocktails - the Fashionista had the Gooseberry Fizz  -  gin and gooseberry jam, frothy and pink, it went down a treat.  I had the Grog - a potent mixture of Goslings, Appleton and El Dorado rums with grapefruit and lime - possibly my new favourite drink.

On to the food - we were told that two to three dishes per person was about right. To start we had the bacon guacamole and salt cod with saffron oil.  Both came with flat bread.  Both were nice, if not spectacular.

We then had the confit duck and pistachio terrine with pickled onions and gherkins and crostini.  Again, a nice plate of food.

Unfortunately, despite our upbeat mood and determination to be positive that is where our luck ran out.  Crab cakes were soggy, the candied lime out of place.  Nut crusted lamb cutlets with honey, pomegranate molasses and pumpkin puree sounded like my kind of dish - it was let down by the lamb.  Tough and fatty, it was a chore.

We were now a little downbeat.  But Mr Buckleys came through at the end.  Mac 'n' cheese will get the Fashionista excited at the worst of times.  Throw in some lobster and she reaches fever pitch.  Mr Buckley's version did not disappoint.  Sufficiently light, with just enough tail meat to keep you happy, it came adorned with little jewels of roe.  A positive to end on.

Mr Buckleys has just opened - a new team has been assembled which will take time to settle in.  And, as a place for a few drinks and a couple of snacks, Mr Buckleys has perhaps stolen a march on some of its more established neighbours.  But dishes like the lamb and crab cakes are going to need to improve quickly, such is the quality of competition around Broadway these days.  A good start and I for one am hoping it goes from strength to strength - after all, you cant have a Lucky Chip from the Sebright every week can you?

Mr Buckleys on Urbanspoon

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
Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards