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
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