Sunday, 16 November 2014

Som Saa: worth the wait!

I love a queue. I really do. I see a restaurant surrounded by baying "foodies" and I want to go. I will stand in the rain, the sleet and the snow, just to get whatever it may be: a burger; some ramen perhaps. I waited 2 hours for a burger from #Meateasy, as they then were, in New Cross Gate. Call me boring, but the great thing about a queue is that it is orderly, you may be climbing the culinary equivalent of Everest, but the summit is in sight: you know how many breathless steps you have got to go to get there.

Men with clipboards, however well meaning, are a slightly different prospect. You are assured of 45 minutes, that comes and goes. Others, who arrived after, seem to be sitting down earlier (perhaps the joys of eating in a three). One table, almost empty other than for a few portly gentleman, offers hope, a false dawn; no that is the owner who needs nine seats for him and his chums. An hour arrives, still no luck. Another quarter, nope, still waiting.

We get to 1 hour 35 and at last we sit down, a little weary, murmurings that "it had all better be worth it". But see that's where Som Saa, the latest pop up at Climpson's Arch, gets you. Because it is. Despite the disorderly seating system, the mislaid snacks which turned up 30 minutes late and the general lack of organisation, the food is, in the main, very good indeed. You have traveled through purgatory and arrived in heaven: a heaven heavy-laden with chili, drenched in fish sauce and full of lime-smacked smiles. In London it is perhaps only second to The Heron in delivering that collision of flavour that only Thailand can.

Some snacks got us through our wait, cashew nuts tarted up with Kaffir Lime and chili, some fermented pork, sour and spicy. There is the usual som tam, here served Bangkok or Isaan style (a little heavy on the salt, but vibrant).

Grilled pork neck makes the most of the wood-fired oven at Climpson's Arch - hot, sweet, sour, and salty in equal measures, it is everything Thai food should be.There is a curry which, to my palate tastes similar to a Massaman, although it is given a much more interesting name here.

Juicy prawns are simply grilled, served with a dipping sauce in which to get your fingers grubby.

And fish, perhaps the scariest looking sea bass you ever will see - I was waiting for fireballs to roll forth from its nose! It may look overdone, but the flesh was perfect, the skin crispy. A triumph on which to end.

The wait and the queuing system at Som Saa may be frustrating, the food is anything but. Head early or late, gorge on some of the best Thai food around and leave laughing. I'll be the one at the bottom of the clipboard, waiting for my hit.

*Thanks to the kitchen for the extra serving of prawns to make up for the wait, much appreciated!

Climpson's Arch on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Chotto Matte: Nikkei cuisine with a side of glam

Chotto Matte is a restaurant in Soho. It serves Nikkei cuisine. Obviously. A heady mix of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, think sashimi with giant corn, it is a cuisine made for London in 2014. Peruvian, heralded as the saviour last year, has become a slow-burning success (Ceviche has two branches, Lima a star). Japanese, and especially Japanese "fusion" (how I do hate that word), continues to be a popular amongst the chattering classes.

There is graffiti, but not any old graffiti, Chotto Matte has anime graffiti. Of course there are the Soho chandeliers - the hanging light bulbs of Babylon. There is a winding staircase and a gaggle of glamorous people waiting to greet you. This place has been designed to fit around the stylish set of Soho - a quick look on the website reveals no less than 190 photos of people who I am sure I should know, but don't, all looking just fantastic. Designer heaven set against a backdrop of anime. 

This is not really my style - I prefer a more simple set up. But I digress, I shouldn't be so shallow. Can they cook? Do they manage to blend their sashimi with their ceviche? That is the important thing. 

Emphatically, yes. I know, I am as surprised as you. Often when this much attention has been spent on cultivating such an on-trend look, restaurateurs forget that they also have to serve up half decent plate of grub. No such loss of focus at Chotto Matte. Bar a couple of slightly less impressive dishes (the gyoza were simply fine, the ox heart a little chewy), we are served plate after plate of food that will make you smile. Beautiful food. Tasty food.

A trio of raw seafood to kick things off: limey scallop with jalapeno, yes please; seabass with that giant corn, crispy and boiled; and yellowtail and yuzu. Fresh fish, bang on flavours, it all worked. And, to boot, it was all just so darned pretty!

Sea bass, sweet potato and corn 

Scallop sashimi

Things continued with some crispy softshell crab and beef heart in a "traditional" marinade - a rousing mix of panca and amarillo peppers, unctuous is the word I think. There were also gyoza, crispy one side, punctuated by garlic.

We finished with a couple of tostaditas. Now maybe this is what Nikkei cuisine is - I have eaten well in Peru and Japan, but I don't profess to be an expert - but it certainly felt as if we had headed a couple of thousand miles north to Mexico when these came out - think the beach at Tulum. Crispy tortilla topped with beef fillet "tataki" (not sure that we had enough of a sear to get us to tataki, but nice nonetheless), and black cod with miso. Great snacking food.

Beef tataki tostadita

Black cod and miso tostadita

Does it serve up genuine Nikkei cuisine? Probably not. Does it matter? Probably not. Chotto Matte is like a student on their gap year, let loose with an STA round-the-world ticket: some truffle from Italy, a stop in Mexico for supplies, a lengthy stay in Peru to "help the locals", followed by some culture in Japan. You know what though, I enjoyed my gap year. And I enjoyed Chotto Matte too, so there!

Chotto Matte on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Top Taste: Liaoning in Bethnal Green

If the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe taught us anything (putting aside the deeply religious connotations for just one second) it is that it is good to walk through strange doors. No really, imagine if they hadn't gone through the wardrobe. No story, just four kids from London on an adventure in the countryside. Okay Enid Blyton did well enough out of that with her bands of adventurers, five famous ones, seven secret, but you get my point. CS Lewis's novel is nothing without that first step over the threshold.

And so back to restaurants. Sometimes it's easy to go in. Candles flickering, white linen table cloths and a maitre d' waiting to take your coat. Why would you stay outside? But Top Taste (terrible name, but in fairness it is a direct quotation from the Chinese, liao wei feng) is harder. From the outside it looks like a cross between a terrible Cantonese takeaway and a herbal remedy store. It doesn't conjure images of a secret wonderland: you wouldn't think that Narnia, Aslan and Mr Tumnus were behind that door. But, you'd be wrong. Because behind that exterior are all the delights of northern Chinese cuisine (sadly I am no expert in the difference between the flavours of Xingjiang, Szechuan and Liaoning): sichuan pepper, mounds of chili and barbecued meats.

I was encouraged to take that first step into Top Taste thanks to a great article by Fuschia Dunlop on regional Chinese food available in London. While she might have missed out the best of the lot (Silk Road in Camberwell - a haven for Xinjianese cooking) she did have a number of other great recommendations - definitely worth a read.

The menu at Top Taste is split into Chef's specials, the Liaoning food I suspect, and various other generic Chinese dishes. With the restaurant full, we spent ages trying to guess what others were eating, before eventually settling on some dry fried green beans, stir fried lamb chop with chili and twice cooked pork with chili.

Green beans arrived first - a smack of chili, stirred through with minced chicken (this is not a place for veggies), salty with soy sauce, a heady mixture.

Next up was the highlight, lamb chops. You certainly wouldn't call them french-trimmed, but they were all the better for it. Slow-cooked over what must have been hours, then flash fried before being served, they were crispy and soft, like some kind of Liaoning take on southern fried chicken, but with lamb and laden with chili.

The only disappointment of the night was the twice cooked pork - the belly meat was a little dry in places, the szechuan pepper so liberally used that it didn't work for me.

Given the mounds coming out of the kitchen, we also had to try one each of the squid, beef tendon and BBQ lamb skewers. With a heavy dusting of cumin powder they worked well, but I am not sure if I would order the plate of 15 like others were.

Finally, and without any need given the volume of food consumed, we had a "pan fried garlic chive pancake pocket". Now it may look like something from Findus, but this was great, lightly fried with a crisp shell, the filling was joy of chive, egg and garlic.

So take that step, get over the drab exterior and walk inside. Top Taste will reward you with a feast of chilies and barbecue. Oh and the beers are only £2.50, what's not to like.

Top Taste on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Kench and Bibesy: they are at least trying

What do you say to someone who has tried their very, very best, but just not quite reached whichever pinnacle they had set their sights on? The Olympic sprinter who, after training for four years, all those early mornings, sweat and tears, gets knocked out in the semi-final after having been paired in race full of Jamaicans.  Do you say, try, try again - take a leaf from that man Robert the Bruce and his eight legged friend? Or do you just smile, say well done, but you're just never going to be able to quite do what they do - you can't match the Jamaicans: the Clove Club, the Beagles, the Ten Bells of this world.

Kench and Bibesy is the new(ish) place from the people behind The Evans and Peel Detective Agency in Earls Court - a prohibition era style bar where you need an "appointment with a detective" to get a seat. I've not made the schlep over London to get there, but it sounds fun. The prohibition-era vibe continues with Kench. Downstairs, behind a secret wall (the waitress will show you if you ask nicely), is a great little bar. We settled on a Oenological Manhattan, made with wine tannin infused rye whisky, and a Lapland Collins, a heady mix of Kamm and Sons (that darling of the London drink scene) with Cloudberry Liquor. Expertly made, served with a smile and a promise of a refund if we didn't like them, a Jamaican one, two three, was looking unlikely.  Kench was coming up on the inside.

And so, with a warm glow from the cocktails, we made our way back upstairs to the restaurant, a slice of Soho in Smithfields (in a good way). But this is where those pesky Jamaicans starting having their way - it became clear that Kench and Bibesy was going to be the eternal semi-finalist. Silly names aside (Bellypops; Return of the Tail!?!) the menu reads like Isaac McHale has had his grubby (but rather clever) little hands all over this place: rare breed carrots, sorrel hollandaise, buttermilk and black pepper - it's straight out of the Clove Club. But the problem is, he hasn't. It is not that wizard Isaac behind the stove, it is someone who has been to one of his restaurants, who can cook rather well, but gets a little too carried away.

The carrots

Take the "Pigeon, Fancier": what comes is perfectly cooked pigeon breast, nicely pink. But alongside it is chocolate barley.  Now pigeon (and venison for that matter) can work with a dusting of cocoa - the bitter cocoa and minerally meat combine well. Chocolate barley does not work, no matter how nicely you cook the pigeon breast that goes along with it.

And so it continued, slow cooked ox tail was what it said, but the potato was plain and the pickled grapes plain weird. Jerusalem artichoke and truffle pate was pungent stuff, a bite was nice, two too much - the spelt crackers were excellent though.

Much, much better was the Scotch egg, perfectly crispy with gooey yolk - one of the finest around, made even better by being offered as a buy two get one free. Yes, we had three Scotch eggs. Oh dear...

So what to make of Kench and Bibesy? A lot of effort has gone into this place, many hours of thought, days of planning. Drinks-wise it is on the podium, and that is not said lightly. It blows the original cocktail pioneers nearby, such as the Worship Street Whistling Shop, out of the water - it reminded me of the drinks served up at Viajante's ever so clever cocktail bar (no mean feat!). And there is endeavour in the food. Chef Michael Harrison is trying something - he did not take the easy route and serve steaks in the heart of the Capital's meat market. That is to be applauded, and, do you know what, he is not far off. A little less adventure (not something I would ever normally say), and this place could be very good indeed. Sadly, at the moment, it just didn't quite work for me. I'll definitely be back for cocktails and Scotch eggs though.

Square Meal
Kench & Bibesy on Urbanspoon
Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards