Sunday, 31 October 2010

Review of Les Deux Salons - Oct 2010

WhereLes Deux Salons, Covent Garden
With who: The Vole
How much: A very good value set lunch was £15 for three courses, our total bill (with an extra course) came to £70 for the two of us. Starters generally £6 - £9 and mains £16 - £21, including sides.

The third in the family from Anthony Demetre, the chef behind low key Michelin starred joints Wild Honey and Arbutus, was always going to get my interest. I've had some great meals at the other two and was excited to hear about the plans for a larger, more classically French bistro just off St Martin's Lane. Like one of my other big current favourites, the Dean Street Townhouse, Les Deux Salons is housed in a former Pitcher and Piano and my god, is it an improvement. While they may not have the deep pockets of Caprice Holdings, the team behind Les Deux Salons have done a great job turning the large, cavernous space into an elegant French bistro. Deep red banquettes, blacks and whites and elegant brasses go with the formality of the linen table cloths and the bustling smart floor team. It's a big room, with further covers on the mezzanine level, and they'll have to go some to fill it on every service, but on this showing, I think they're in with a fighting chance, even if the mezzanine level isn't open often. 

It's a classic bistro menu, with a large nod to their Josper Grill (an ultra hot Spanish machine drooled over by chefs nationwide) and a Gallic sneer towards the vegetarians - a couple of salads and a solitary (though very fine) pasta dish complete the meat free line up. A particularly fine looking bavette (or flank steak) arrives on the next table, joining a Scottish beefburger that comes in at £12 and pretty much guarantees my return visit. We go for the set menu and slip in the orecchiette pasta as a shared course after the starter. It's almost a step too far.

The white bean and smoked duck soup I start with is OK, but to be honest, it's nothing special. I can't taste the duck at all and the bean is a little chalky. The Vole's chunky country terrine is a much better option, full of flavoursome nuggets of melting fat. Fresh orecchiette pasta comes in a creamy sauce with artichokes, pecorino, kale and pine nuts and is exceptional. Well cooked, well seasoned and with individual flavours that really shine through. Simple but very well thought through. Even simpler though is the shoulder of venison served with a parsnip puree that follows as my main. It's a big portion of gamey melting meat served with a smooth puree and a rich jus. The meat was obviously on the go before I was this morning, and has been caramelised around the edges with the Josper. It's sweet and meltingly tender. I feel thoroughly sated.  

The chocolate fondant was acceptable, good even, but almost too much after the previous courses. It wasn't too memorable, but I did spy a Rhum Baba on an adjacent table with my name on it for next time. 

Les Deux Salons on Urbanspoon

Birthday lunch at the Anchor & Hope - October 2010

WhereThe Anchor and Hope, Waterloo
With who: The Vole, Nico Polo, The Book Queen and Mr Rock and Roll 
How much: £25 a head for mains, dessert and drinks, mains around £12 - £16

Living relatively close and spending a lot of time around South East London, I've made a fair few visits to and given many more recommendations of the Anchor and Hope. These have been inspired more by my own experiences than the rave reviews whenever it gets covered - I had to dig out this very out of character and slightly creepy loving review by Giles Coren, even though it makes me feel a little bit embarrassed, somewhat like hearing an elderly and curmudgeonly uncle recite erotic poetry to a beautiful young girl. 
It's a pleasingly comfortable deep red space, built out of the base of a horrific 60's block on The Cut, just down from the Old Vic and virtually next door to the Young Vic. Despite the restaurants (it's also home to Meson Don Philipe, Livebait, Baltic, at least 2 species of Tas and many others) and theatres, it is still a residential area, attested to by the loud children playing knock-door-run (or some felonious version thereof) with the local shopkeep.  
The local crowd, large even on an early lunchtime, look like they've just come from a performance at the slightly arthousey Young Vic next door. They know i
t's important to get in early as they don't take bookings. By 12.30 you can see why. It's absolutely rammed, all rickety rough sanded tables in the snug dining room taken, many other wanna-eats crowding the similar sized bar on the other side, chugging back early pints of Youngs Broadside while they wait for a table. We popped in on the off-chance having met here for a beer, were tempted to stay, and helped out by the friendly staff who found a table within minutes.

You can see the influences and shared heritage from places like St John. From the casual tumblers of tap water (brought unrequested with no bottled water upsell) and wine to the portions of 
beautifully soft, chewy sourdough that whet our appetites, it's unfussy, uncomplicated, casual dining. The menu is focussed around game and offal, with a few fish dishes (though not much for vegetarians) and I've got to say that I hadn't been looking forward to a main 
course as much as this for some time. 

With so many things on the seasonal menu I knew whatever I went for I'd be envious of the rest. The h
are ragout with semolina gnocchi sang to me from the list, but was rather disappointing in delivery. The ragout was packed full of flavour, the hare slow braised to tender gamey perfection, but the sauce was a little too stew-like for me, the juice a little too light, and the semolina 'gnocchi' a slightly tasteless slab that didn't soak up enough of the juice. Two of the others had the 
confit of duck, dark soft flesh flaking off the bone, skin salty and crisp. We shared a generous portion of 

buttery greens, unnecessary due to the large portions but eaten swiftly. The puddings were excellent. A tart and sticky damson bakewell tart came hot from the oven and lasted seconds. Nico Polo's pistachio cake was pronounced similarly excellent.  

Don't be put off by the potential for a wait if you don't live locally. It's a laidback place worth travelling for, so turn up, relax at the bar and put your name down. Surely you're with someone you can have a couple of relaxed drinks with? And besides, the best things come to those who wait.
Anchor & Hope on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 28 October 2010

San Francisco - Review of Zuni Cafe Oct 2010

Zuni Cafe is one of those Californian institutions, along with Alice Water's Chez Panisse (the original) and Greens, that has been around in broadly the same form since the 70's and along with showier latecomers such as the French Laundry has put the region on the culinary map. The key to Californian cuisine is quality sourced ingredients cooked simply and well and Zuni has developed a short and stylish Cal-Italian menu based around the brick oven proudly occupying the centre of the room, birthplace of their classic roast chicken. 

A few casual bar tables fit into the tight but light and airy block corner space and the gradual growth into the mezzanine and an adjacent room has given them a more classic dining room with linen cloths to match. It's a wonderfully Californian space. The crowd were well heeled and Cali casual. Hipsters in havaianas mixed with dressed down grey hairs. There were so many things I could have eaten on this menu. The burgers at the next table looked stunning, as did a nearby pizza, and the Tuscan roast chicken will have to be saved for my next visit ($42 for the chicken, but it shares with at least 3 or 4 judging by other reviews, allow an hour or pre-order if you get there before me). 

I opened with Serrano ham served with pimentos de padron, goats cheese and orange zest gremolata. The crunchy zing of the gremolata and the salty spice of the pimentos came in perfectly with the goats cheese. The ham was pretty good, but I've had better, and much closer to home. The main was revelatory. One of the thickest pork chops I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The knowledgable enthusiast serving me gave me the run down of its history. From a farm called Becker Lane, a small Iowa producer apparently, it was an Iowan pork chop as you'd imagine. Like their men, grown on corn, open space and sunshine. Free range to the point of being semi-wild, it had dark open flesh and was meatily juicy to the n'th degree. If I were a pig, I'd want to be this pig (assuming there's no opening for the one in Babe). It came with a semi-raw salad of fresh green beans and thin sliced courgette with the pick me up of purple basil. The two elements were brought together with a Sungold heritage tomato salad in a light dressing, the sweet snap of the tomatoes cutting through the glistening unctuous fat of the heaven sent chop. 
ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

New York - The good, the average and the ugly

I was working.. Honestly.. Despite what it looks like.. Man has to eat after all.. There are always going to be a few hits and a few misses when dining in any large city and so I thought I'd share a couple of my favourite options from this last visit... 
The good...
Spotted Pig - West Village - 314 W 11th Street
A cozy little spot in the West Village that gives lie to the concept that Michelin stars are only given for stuffed French shirts. The Spotted Pig feels like it's been there for years, it's a casual bar, low lit with a kitschy floral motif. Jam packed, even on a Sunday night, there are no reservations so get your name down on the list or snag a spot at the old wood bar and knock back cocktails, Guinness or pints of Old Speckled Hen. Despite the porcine title, the menu has a fair few veggie options and rediscovered classics on their relatively small menu. We went for 70's dinner party staple Devils on Horseback (Unami packed prunes wrapped in moreish salty proscutio ham). Following that, our first night in New York had to be celebrated with a burger, it's not cheap at $17 but came packed with flavour, fighting (not entirely successfully) with an unannounced blue cheese topping. Served in a grilled brioche bun it comes with an enormous side of shoestring fries, catwalk model thin and cut with rosemary and garlic, fried into chewy golden coins. I can imagine it irritating when you've got to wait 2 hours for a slot at the bar, but it's a great call for a Sunday evening.
La Esquina - Nolita - 106 Kenmare Street
They love their hidden bars and restaurants in this city, and to be honest so do I. Even on a Monday night, La Esquina was rammed, the reservation essential. Enter a humble looking diner on the edges of Lower East Side, ignore the few seats around the upstairs windows and descend, past the obligatory uber cool and moody doorkeeper (oddly this one was the home of arch style, Derbyshire, amazing what'll impress the Americans..), into the bowels of the building. Here you're sent through the working kitchen and into a dark, grungy, vaulted tequila bar and restaurant. The food comes thick, heavy and family style, with a range of key Mexican staples supplementing the 120 strong tequila list. We get stuck into them both. Highlights included meltingly succulent Costellas de Puerco, pork ribs with a chipotle and guava glaze, and some thrillingly deep and savoury carnitas taquitos. Come 2am and it's finally starting to wind down. The DJ starts packing up his tasteful 80's foot-tappers and the barstaff call time. On busier nights they stay open till at least 4am here, plenty of time to get another round of tequilas in, just don't bother with the lime, they really don't approve...
Pastis - Meatpacking District - 9th Avenue at Greenwich Street
There's not a lot to say about Keith McNally's Meatpacking bistro that hasn't already been said. Along with sibling Balthazar, it seemed like the place that invented booking for brunch as a competitive sport. There's plenty of other options on the menu throughout the day but the claims of the best Eggs Benedict you'll ever eat were what I always remember.
It was one of the first New York restaurants I heard about and though I didn't want to admit it, one that I really yearned to go to. Easy enough to disparage, who wants to plan a simple plate of eggs on a weekend a month in advance? Surely you just drop in and go? Not an option at Pastis. Unless... If you can, go during the week. less of an 'it' crowd, more space. That being said, on a blustery random Thursday, the dark wooden tables and rustic chairs near the long zinc bar were still 70% full of local business types and yummy Village mummies.
Clean, light and tiled. It's just what you imagine a Parisian bistro to look like. If designed by Tom Ford, on a Hollywood sized sound stage, staffed with models. And the Eggs Benedict? That semi-mythical signature showstopper? Pretty damn perfect as far as it goes. Buttery hollandaise came with a light cayenne dusting and blanketed the golden sacs of gloriously poached eggs. Two salty thick rashers of ham divided the eggs from the freshly baked muffin. The eggs were served, as so often in the States, with a portion of crisp, bitesized chunks of home fried potato, a carby afterthought worthy of high, high praise.

And the others?
Standard Grill - The only time I've been charged a supplement for jam! Strawberry is 'on the house' but you'll pay extra if you want to spread a premium artisan brand on your morning toast. Not a bad burger though according to the others.
VeselkaEast Village 24 hour diner with a Ukrainian twist. It's as utilitarian a dining room as you'd expect, locals come from the nearby university and a thriving east European expat and immigrant community. I went for a meat plate, a blunt descriptor for a combination of lamb meatballs in a rich mushroomy sauce wrapped in cabbage leaves, better than perogies (small dumplings) of lamb and potato which lacked a little in taste and needed the kick of the accompanying beetroot pickle.
Bill's Bar & BurgerI ended up in this good for groups Meatpacking option less out of choice, more out of between meeting schedule necessity. I initially quite liked the stripped down ex-industrial Meatpacking vibe with wipeclean gingham table cloths and obligatory tattooed and surly hipster staff. Sitting in the small front bar it felt authentic and several food writers I follow had commented favourably on the house special, the Bill's Burger, served with 'special' sauce (calm down at the back).. Allegedly, I was told, this was the closest NYC has to the burgery perfection of West Coast In-n-Out Burger. Sadly not quite the meaty nirvana I was looking for. Served in a white sesame bun, with a patty so soft your grandfather could eat it without his dentures being in. The flavour was there and the patty was juicy enough but there wasn't enough bite to really satisfy. The special sauce had a slight kick, but it certainly didn't match up to West Coast competition.
Gaslight - Disappointing slice joint on the wide intersection of W14th and Gaansvoort. It's been better from memory but the only positive things I can honestly say are that it's cheaper and more generously portioned than the prestigious location would suggest. Anaemic watery sausage sat on a pile of thick tasteless mozzarella. 'Fergeddabowdit'... There are plenty of better options in the District.
Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon
La Esquina on Urbanspoon
Pastis on Urbanspoon
Veselka on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Book Club - Oct 2010

WhereThe Book Club, Shoreditch
With who: The Ginger Prince 
How much: A neat, slightly clever breakfast / brunch menu (baked beans on toast make a tongue in cheek appearance), a slightly schizophrenic lunch and dinner service backing up some great cocktails and a good wine list. small plates for £3.50/£5, big (and I mean big) plates for less than a tenner. Very good value...

It's not clever to mock the afflicted. So I'll say little about the slightly too cool for school denizens of Shoreditch and Hoxton. Besides, The Ginger Prince and I had gone to an event hosted at The Book Club on Leonard Street and floppy haired kooks and early twenties hipsters come with the territory. The event was fun, if a little worthy, but I like what they're doing with the place. It hosts events (they have a regular menu from poetry and philosophy to music and networking) most nights in a downstairs basement, tricked out as a Shoreditch standard, bare brick walls, exposed pipes and graffiti stickers. Upstairs is similar, with the addition of hipster art prints, posters for forthcoming rockabilly nights and a ping pong table. Chairs as stolen from local church halls and your grandmother's parlour.
That slight derision aside, I have to say I like it. I've been there a few times during the day for meetings and the space always feel welcoming. The big windows let the light stream in, it's comfortable and the slightly scatty staff get it right more often than not. For such a casual place, more bar than restaurant, they run a lot on their menu, and this is one of the few problems. It feels a little too try-hard. The lunch menu (served all afternoon) rolls from rustic soups and jacket potatoes to chicken schnitzel and monkfish. It all looks good, and there's not much you wouldn't want to eat, but I wouldn't try to construct a meal out of it. 
Dinner gives you a selection of light (or not so light) plates. The Ginger Prince and I went for way too much without realising it. A plate of Muchos Nachos was indeed muchos, though the nachos themselves were homemade, feathery light and buttery sweet. The topping was adequate and for a tenner, a very good plate to share between two or three. The one that killed us was the duck rillette, it wasn't the half loaf of sourdough, or the large pot of homemade piccillili; sweet and crunchy with a snap of mustard, it was the soup bowl, mounded (way too) high with the subtly seasoned and gamey rillette. It wasn't the best I've had, the meat was a little too dry and the seasoning a little too subtle (with no other notes to cut through the rich meat), but it was huge. We got barely half way through the portion before admitting defeat. Half the size, twice the spice should be the chef's aim. 
The Book Club on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Buen Ayre - Oct 2010

WhereBuen Ayre, Broadway Market, Hackney With who: Mrs Jones How much: More meat than even I can eat for £23 a head. A phenomenally priced Argentinian wine list too, with several at around the £12 mark, several decent Malbecs under £20 and very little that went above £40.

I've been pulled up on the largely erroneous name of the blog a few times recently, and I have to say in my defence, that it's less about me lacking in discernment, and more to do with the recommendations I get. I'm not afraid to grumble if what I've had has been piss-poor (yes La Tasca, I'm looking at you) but it is hard to grumble when you visit somewhere with such a genuinely positive vibe.
If the Gaucho Grill is the 18 stone bully of the Argentinian Steak House scene, kicking sand in everyone's face and making you think that they invented the art of grilling meat, then Buen Ayre is definitely the speccy nerd. Except that this speccy nerd really knows how to look after himself.
If ever a man were born with a steak knife in his mouth, then that man must be Buen Ayre's co-owner, John P. Rattigan. Born to expat Irish parents, a nation not slouching when it comes to fine cattle husbandry, on a cattle ranch outside Buenos Aires, he eventually moved to the UK to set up Buen Ayre. His title is not Chef, but Asador - the title given to those Argentines who shoulder the heavy responsibility for the BBQ - the high priest who officiates over the holiest holy of Argentine cuisine. 
So Buen Ayre is a steak restaurant. That much is clear. There is no point going here unless you too worship at the altar of meat. 45 covers only, it could sit quietly in the corner of one of Gaucho's barns. They run two sittings, 6.45pm and 9pm, and I'd advise the later one... trying to stagger through this quantity of meat in 2 hours is a challenge. 
The centre point of the rustic Hackney restaurant is the authentic parilla that takes pride of place in the bijoux open-plan kitchen. It's a huge metal grill, custom built in Argentina, on which the slabs of beef are stacked before being lowered onto a base covered in glowing charcoal. The sight of the grill, a bovine version of the Spanish Inquisition, groans with meats and sausages and serves to highlight why you're not here for the salad. I would describe the rest of the restaurant, but dear reader, I didn't notice it. Wood? Maybe some pictures? Sod it, I was here for the meat...
Bread (standard white baguette and a couple of Jacobs crackers) was rescued utterly with a heavenly mix of blue cheese and butter to spread. God knows how good that would have been on nice bread. It came with a brace of homemade empanadas; crumbly buttery pastry cases like spicy Cornish pasties enclosing fresh, hot fillings, designed to take the edge off our hunger. I couldn't stop with the blue cheese mix, determined as I was not to ruin the steak to follow. 
We went for the Parillada Deluxe. A metal tray heated over some of those charcoals, served to your table with a selection of steaks, sausages and cheese (yes, cheese, I'll come back to that). The tray arrived dwarfing the diminutive server, the pair of steaks stacked precariously over the grill. The deluxe comes with a 14oz sirloin and an 11oz rib-eye, both served the rare side of medium rare (to the possible detriment of the fattier rib-eye), sizzling slightly on the plate. If this wasn't enough, the grill also contains two large sausages, disappointingly dry this time but I've been assured that this is a rarity, and four nuggets of a homemade spicy, crumbling black pudding. And a disc of creamy provolone cheese with a topping of dried herbs, sizzling away in a corner of the plate, pulled away in artery threatening lumps. Nice as it was, it felt somewhat extraneous, like they were really trying to fill you with as much fat as you could take. Vital, tasty, life affirming fat for sure, but I felt towards the end of the marathon a little like a force-fed goose. The meat for the record was good. Very good. And certainly one to wave under the nose of anyone who has ever uttered the sentence, "I never bother with steak, it's all too samey for me". I won't mention the char, or the marbling, or any of the other phrases that confirmed meatheads will bandy around, but will confirm that the flesh was deep red throughout and had the most beautiful, almost sweet, taste. 
We didn't have time for desserts, feeling slightly rushed at the end of our time slot. It's unlikely we'd have had room for any, but the option would have been nice. A swift espresso then instead, before rolling off into the Hackney night. I'll be back, and will find it hard to go back to the Gaucho after this. Have a look, you won't be disappointed. 
Buen Ayre on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 10 October 2010

London Restaurant Festival - Gourmet Odyssey - Oct 2010

There are very few things that will get me out of bed early on a Saturday morning. The promise of champagne before lunchtime and three courses at three of London's top restaurants is undoubtedly one of those. As part of the London Restaurant Festival, they're hosting a series of events, or odysseys, taking people around the city by foot or open topped bus in an audacious attempt to do three courses at three different restaurants. I've tried this style of smash and grab dining a few times, as both guest and organiser, and it's not an easy thing to do, so my hat was already partly off to them for even trying it. In the main, it succeeded. There is a top end bias to the London Restaurant Festival, but it's not surprising in a city with so many fine dining restaurants. This is particularly true of the Odyssy tours. That being said, you're not going to drop £125 per ticket for anything less than the expected best.
The Met Bar
We met at London's original 'it' bar and, of an evening, the go to pick up joint even now for the out of town elite (or expense account business types rolling in from Nobu upstairs). They've got a door policy, but these days it seems to extend as far as checking whether you can pick up a tab stretching into the hundreds for premium cocktails and sold up bottles of champagne. I've been a few times (never by choice, please believe that) and thought it an odd start place for our Restaurant Odyssey. In the daylight it suffers. A small space with a handful of deep red leather banquettes, an impressively long bar and a tiny dancefloor for the tiny models and style fascists who occupy it nightly. There's little to no design to speak of other than lacquerwork walls and a couple of generic chinoiserie frills. The staff were fairly clear that this was a 'free' event and had that level of bitter cynicism that comes from anyone who has been around journalists and drink. My request for an orange juice gave the instant response of "that's not free you know, you'll have to pay for it". And pay for it you did, £4.50 for an ice-filled shotglass of juice. Not a good start. At £125 for the event, I was amazed that they hadn't laid on soft drinks at this time of the morning.  
Starter at Koffman's 
Cassolette D'Escargots et Girolles
Things looked up from there as we (eventually) boarded our Routemaster bus like overexcited wedding guests and headed to Koffman's at The Berkley. Taking over the old Boxwood Cafe site wasn't a particularly challenging return for the doyen of 80's expense account cooking and London's first holder of three Michelin stars. The site has hardly changed since Ramsay's departure, still a library-like space of silk and grey. The hushed reverential surrounds feel fitting for the former owner of Tante Claire and darling of the nascent gourmet restaurant scene, but it feels at odds with his gutsy French cuisine. The starter of choice today was a cassarole of  plump earthy snails and sweet mushrooms served on a bed of pureed potato, more cream than spud, covered with a velvety green blanket of garlic and parsley foam. A little full on choice to start, and slightly too much for my companion, but it went down well with a glass of crisp pinot blanc. If you do go to Koffmann's, and go I think you should, then their £22 three course lunch menu is available all week and is very good value, though you don't get to try the unctuous pig's trotters stuffed with mushroom and sweetbread that made Chef Koffmann's reputation. This is worth a trip of its own.
Main at Hibiscus
Label Anglais Chicken with wild mushrooms, white beans, ginger, lime and peanut sauce
By now we were all a few glasses to the good and despite being inevitably behind schedule, were relaxed and happy for the trip back into Mayfair for Claude Bosi's slightly more gentrified and experimental take on French cuisine. The two starred Hibiscus was upended from foodie Mecca Ludlow and the chef has stuck to the kitchen, resisting the temptation to turn businessman and expand brand Bosi. An imposing and genial man, Chef Bosi can't be missed, arms folded, ready with a joke or retort, while his sharp eyes scan the room. He looks almost at odds with the refined and delicate food he serves in the small, unfussy space on Maddox Street. You'd expect rugby player hands the size of hams to be more at home with big meat butchery or at least the more rustic cuisine of our previous locale, however it's clear in his cooking that he possesses a surgeon's delicacy. There's a fussy attention to detail as high as you'd expect from any two starred chef. The chicken was slow poached then roasted, arctic rolls of meat served with a rough mushroom filling. The white bean came with a kick of lime, but the other flavours were too subtle for my palate, despite that, I could have eaten the whole thing again. It went very well with a light Rioja.
Dessert at Sake No Hana
Mitsumame with green tea ice cream and sticky rice cake
It's a beautiful building with huge high wood slats and a soft pine colour scheme. Sadly from a foodies point of view, the best wasn't saved till last. I have to be honest and say that Sake No Hana felt like an afterthought, though it's difficult to follow the previous two courses with a dessert, no matter how good. This holds particularly true for a subtle Japanese dish of jellified seaweed cubes served with fruits and a green tea ice cream (no sign of that rice cake sadly). The dish was fine, but not worth the additional leg of the journey. The fragrant Reisling served with it was the best part of the meal, a shame as I've had some good experiences at the St James Japanese. Particular note on previous visits to some spectacular maki rolls, beautifully flavoured katzu and an excellent dunburi, slivers of ribeye served spiced over a bed of fragrant rice.
It's a good fun concept, and I'm glad I took part. The company was superb in the main and the organisation was well held together and strong. It was a shame some of the 'free guests' crowed about it so much, we sat near a couple who had obviously saved for it and were slightly crestfallen by the number claiming that they wouldn't have paid for it. It's certainly not the way I'd choose to eat my way around three restaurants. For the price paid, you could easily and happily do separate set menus in each and achieve a much better experience of what the kitchens are capable of.
Hibiscus on UrbanspoonMet Bar on UrbanspoonSake No Hana on Urbanspoon

Koffmann's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Menier Chocolate Factory - Oct 2010

WhereMenier Chocolate Factory, London Bridge
With whom: Most recently, The Vole
How much?: We went for the Meal Deal. Genuinely a bit of a deal too.. £24 as opposed to £19 for the ticket and £14 for the two course meal. 

A lovely rose prosecco was only a fiver.

You gotta grab a bite to eat before the theatre. It's not football after all, where you can nosh away during the action. I get the logic, but when a ticket costs north of £60 (in the West End at any rate) you can see why people are tempted to skimp on the food and, if they don't skip dinner entirely, grab a sandwich instead. Because of this, good pre-theatre dining can be challenging. Everywhere has a pre-theatre menu these days, and too many are ill thought out, hastily constructed and as hastily served. 

There are a fair few exceptions worth noting in the West End. Arbutus and Wild Honey have compelling and very reasonable pre-theatre offerings boding well for the newcomer to their group, the soon to open Les Deux Salons. Dean Street Townhouse is a great deal close to Shaftesbury Ave and the old fall backs of the Ivy or J Sheekey are perfect for visiting parents. On a more casual tip, a spicy roll at Moolis or a trip to any of the Byron Burger outlets will fill a hole and I've spent many happy evenings hoovering up a spicy bowl of pho at Viet behind the Palace Theatre before heading into a show. Joe Allen with its off menu burger is still my favourite post show haunt.

Outside the West End, it gets a little more tricky to garner decent recommendations you stand a chance of getting a table at. A number of the off-West End venues have pulled their own pre-theatre catering in-house in an attempt to get some of this lucrative market with varying levels of success. The National demonstrate neatly how 'for the nation' they really are with a £22 two course beast in their Mezzanine restaurant. Why this is priced higher than many Michelin starred restaurants
equivalent offerings 
is beyond me (unless you think they're taking advantage of a captive audience?). It's a large step beyond the £15 you'll pay for Alan Jones classic French cooking over the road from the Almeida and around the same as you'd pay for three courses at Ramsay alumni Mark Sergeant's exciting Swan restaurant at the Globe Theatre. The Royal Court is cheaper still with mains in its basement cafe around £8.

The space is well put together industrial lost and found. Jam jars with tea lights, mismatched furniture, rough hewn wood, exposed pipework and brick. It feels curated, but not affected. The set menu pleasingly changes dependant on the show, regionally relevant to the setting - mood food if you will. Great if you get Aspects of Love, La Cage Aux Folles, or the Italianate thriller the White Devil, but less intriguing if the play is set in modern day London. 
To be fair, the Menier Chocolate Factory isn't yet in the same league as the four mentioned above. But within the constraints of a (fairly) commercial business, artistic director and owner David Babani has created a theatre in tandem with the building around him. The restaurant and bar space feel very much part of the fabric of the organisation. It's telling that on the night we were there, Timothy and Sam West, the father and son starring in the evening's performance of A Number, were settling down to eat along with the audience. 

Good value at £14, but with only two choices per course. I went for a (slightly too subtle) cauliflower and stilton soup. The Vole went for the other starter option, a smoked salmon and chive mousse. Pleasant enough, but nothing that would set the world alight. The vegetarian main was a treat though. A dense cannonball cake of cloying pumpkin specked risotto was served with a sweet pumpkin puree and courgette spaghetti (well spears in our case, but others looked more accomplished). We finished with an ebullient seasonal fruit crumble, a university rugby player sized portion for a slimfit £3 supplement. It wasn't the most professional meal I've eaten, but there was an enthusiasm and willingness to please that made you forgive mistakes in service, presentation and flavour. Like a meal at a good friend's house, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I come back to the pricing at the National Theatre, nearly ten pounds more expensive per head. The Menier could take advantage of their captive audience, and arguably they need the additional revenue far more than one of the few organisations that will be deemed too big to fail in the cuts. The fact they don't, and provide good solid food prior to an evening of excellent theatre, means I'd be happy coming back again and again.

Menier Chocolate Factory on Urbanspoon

Caphe House, Bermondsey Street - Oct 2010

Following on from recent wanders down Bermondsey Street, I thought that this place deserved a mention. Caphe House is a small and friendly cafe in the midst of bustling Bermondsey Street, snadwiched between the greasy spoon authenticity of Al's Cafe and the myriad of chi chi boutiques and uptheirownarse coffee emporia. A Viet cafe feels very gentrified for this very white working class area, but in ethos at least, it's nearer in style to the old Bermondsey than the new. The furniture is more discount than designer and they're not winning any awards for their decor. That being said, I'm not here for the view. They serve a selection of pho (noodle soup w selected meats), summer rolls and the object of my affections, the banh mi roll.
I went for the roast pork roll, served as a standard pre made white flour (rather than the traditional rice flour) half baguette with shredded pork. The thin slivers of cucumber and red chilli in the roll cancel each other out nicely and balance with the grated carrots in this spicy Vietnamese street treat, but the chilli vinegar is heavily cut with soy and too saltily strong. For £3.50 it's difficult to complain. They also do a good range of Vietnamese treats, noodles and pleasingly sell a number of authentic ingredients, just like mamma used to use. If every street had a Caphe House, we'd be in a much better (and spicier) place.
Caphe House on Urbanspoon

The Dean Street Townhouse REDUX - Oct 2010

Where: Dean Street Townhouse, Soho
With who: The Chief Barker
How much: Prices rising slightly, though not much... starters around £7 to £9 (other than the oysters) and while a few mains now creep above £20, most hover petulantly in their teens.

The Dean Street Townhouse was the first 'proper' restaurant I reviewed back in February and as I've been back a few times recently as the place comes round to its first birthday (November if you fancy sending a card) I thought a little re-review might be in order. 

I don't remember a bad review of DST when it first opened. The classic British menu, the Front of House team from The Ivy, the prices, the classic bistro decor with a few anarchic twists and the crowd, oh the beautiful crowd - All attracted the kind of slightly creepy and lascivious praise usually bestowed on singers in girl bands by middle aged men wistful for their youth.  

One year on, and they're still doing it. Sure, there have been some wrong turns over the year. They're still not full on the pre-theatre service (a perfect chance to visit if you haven't), mornings are likely to be costing more than they're making and the service is still 'quirky' in places (oddly better when they're busy, otherwise they have a tendency to 'look'  . They also haven't given up on the 'house special' of mince and potatoes despite it having been ordered once (disappointedly) in all of the times I've taken people there. 

But that being said, at 1pm on a Wednesday lunchtime the place was 70% full and building. By half past it was packed to the gills. A cathedral roar of appreciation for good food and good company. If you could bottle buzz, it would still smell like the Dean Street Townhouse. Old (really that old? it's only been a year) favourites such as the ham hock terrine still remain, like reprobates at a reunion. Salty, sumptuous and with a minimum of fucking around, it sits proud next to the oysters and a new shellfish bisque with brandy. Thankfully too, they still have the twice baked mackrel soufflĂ©. A cheesy unctuous wobble served with hardly needed parsley cream sauce.

For me one of the best signs of a good restaurant is a short, confident list of food, all of which appeals to your baser instincts. A great restaurant is one where three or four literally fight it out with your stomach for the honour of being picked. Here the classic ribeye fought a close battle with the roast Banham chicken but lost narrowly to a newish (and heathyish) option of seared squid, chorizo and anya potatoes (fingerlings to our North American cousins) served with a perky rocket salad and a hideously well priced Malbec. They've made a nod to the season, and there's a new season grouse on the menu, which the Chief Barker toyed with before going for the chuck. All served simply and properly.   

So Dean Street is growing up well. It's not and won't ever be, the place to go for that special occasion, but it's the best place right now for a great long lunch, or an early evening dinner with friends that takes you right through the night. 
Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon