Sunday, 27 February 2011

Dr Science's birthday present at Dinner by Heston - Aug 10 to Feb 11

Where: Dinner by Heston, Knightsbridge
With: Dr Science
How much: £165 for the pair of us, with a (relatively) cheap bottle of wine and one set lunch menu

Come here if: you're sure you'll be put off by that fancy stuff at the Fat Duck, but want to tell your friends you've eaten with that man off the Waitrose adverts. Or conversely, if you're planning ahead to wow a client. Other than that, give it a miss.

Not being the best at picking imaginative yet apposite presents for my friends I often end up falling back on the ever acceptable drink option, arriving at the party proffering a guilty bottle of Balvennie or a bottle of bubbly (price tag artfully removed). To be fair, it works for most of them, bunch of sots that they are. That being said, for Dr Science's 40th (sorry mate, you don't act it) I really wanted to find something a bit special.

Ever since I found out about the opening of the "most exciting London restaurant opening ever" ((c) everyone in the mainstream food press), at the Mandarin Oriental, there was no way I was going to be able to avoid it. Either to meekly back up the pages of positive print it has had already, or to stick a slightly snippy line down on it, thus fighting my own personal fight against the hype, either way, nothing me or any other (proper) food writer could say about it would have any effect on the 6 month waiting list. For those of you who have spent the last year only eating in MacDonalds, or who don't care a fig for fine dining, bald headed culinary Wonka Heston Blumenthal (he of the snail porridge and 'food as theatre' TV programmes) has just opened a new restaurant called Dinner on the most expensive street corner in Western Europe. Restaurateurs. Don't. Get. Any. More. Exciting. Than. Him.

At a stroke I'd solved two pressing concerns. Dr Science's forthcoming birthday, and my desperate need to get to Dinner by Heston and see what the fuss was going to be about. I booked, we took the afternoon off, and resolved to have a seriously decadent time.

The room is fairly generic opulent hotel resto chic. Neutral beige palate, expensive fixtures and a proliferation of arseholes in suits. It is the dining room of the Mandarin Oriental, one of London's most expensive hotels, after all. That being said, there are moments of zany Heston-ism scattered around; jelly moulds act as light fittings, the back bar is lit with gummi coloured bottles of booze and serried ranks of pineapples roast on a spit powered by the largest Swiss watch you'll ever see (I'll come back to those...).

It ain't another Fat Duck. Neither is it just a posh food pit for fat cats to roll around in. It's somewhere between the two, but mostly just a five star hotel restaurant. It's less complex than you'd expect. There's no nine course set tasting menu here (no tasting menu at all, unless you're in the Chef's Table overlooking the pass), just three simple courses, each with 8 or 10 options. Recipes aren't beset with foams and gels and carnival flourish, but are taken from the annals of British food history, the grand dishes served to our forefathers (or at least the forefathers belonging to the monied arseholes in suits).

As you'd expect, the prices are challenging in places, challenging to those not on expense account dining certainly. While there are a number of wines in the 28 page list below £100, the vast bulk of the list is pitched above this point (some considerably so), that being said, we found a very pleasant Fleurie at £45. More surprising is a three course lunch set menu at a very reasonable £28. I go for this while Dr Science plumps for the a la carte option. I've seen one too many reviews not to have heard of the Meat Fruit, a chicken liver parfait coated in mandarin gel, shaped and textured like a little mandarin. We add one of those to the table too, with the current waiting list at 6 months it's going to be a while before I'm back to try it again. My Ragoo of Pigs Ears is a real star. It's been braised for hours with sweet onion and parsley and the cartilage is sweet and soft, an intensely concentrated meaty kick. Dr Science goes for the Salamagundy, a perfectly constructed and flavoursome hot salad of chicken oysters, bone marrow and a light horseradish cream. If anything it's a little soft and texturally lacking, but that's not much to lay against it. And the Meat Fruit? It's a ball of chicken liver parfait. Strangely tasteless without the char of the sourdough. I don't think I saw a single table go without one though.

The Roast Quail from the set menu was another flavour triumph for my cheaper menu choice. The turnips served with it were subtly smoked and then roasted, just the sort of thing you hope for from Heston. Soft game breast worked well barely cooked, though the just cooked meat was remarkably difficult to separate from the tiny quail legs. Dr Science's 72 hour slow roast rib of angus beef managed to arouse high passion on arrival, a thick lozenge of dark meat, served with a thick jus, cubes of ox tongue and baby veg. It was good, but certainly not brilliant. The meat had the texture of a hunk of salt beef, and was relatively one dimensional in its flavour. Definitely one that didn't live up to my hype.

That being said, we finished on a storming note, with the Tipsy Cake. A baked brioche, crystal studded with sugar, cooked in cream, Sauternes and brandy. It came served with a slice of the pineapple from earlier mentioned spit roast and my rapidly expiring heart. Pudding perfection from 1810; no wonder they had a life expectancy of less than 45 back then.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Rodizio Preto - Feb 2011

Where: Rodizio Preto, Wilton Street, Victoria

How much: £15 for access to hot and cold buffets and £20 a head for the full meaty menu
Come here if: you're organising a big party for carnivores who don't take themselves too seriously.

No matter how hard I think about it, I just can't force myself to really recommend Rodizio Preto to you. It's trying so hard (and succeeding) on so many levels, but the whole just didn't quite work. I knew it was too good to be true when, scanning around for somewhere to take the Radio Star for a (very) belated Christmas dinner, I came cross Victoria's very own all you can eat Brazilian meat buffet... So many reasons why that sentence should make sense. 

The restaurant themes itself as a Churrascaria, a Brazilian BBQ restaurant. After filling your plate with hot and cold Brazilian starters and sides (don't get too much.. seriously) you sit back and wait for the Passadores to arrive. Translating essentially as meat waiters, they bring large skewers to your table, carving off hunks of animal to order. 

It's a modern but undistinguished Latin American cafe style place focussed around that large buffet counter. Think 3* hotel breakfast room in the Algarve with canned Portuguese pop pumping out of the TV on the wall and you won't go far wrong. But you're not here for the look, you're here for the meaty experience. Friendly staff give you a card to place on your table that you swivel between 'Sin' and 'Nao' depending on your need for meat. They ignore it mostly, piling delectable cut on top of cut. Feel free to turn them down early on, I looked away from my plate for a second and returned to 4 or 5 lumps of cow. It's a marathon, not a sprint...

The skewers work, really well in the main, though miss hits come with a chicken sausage, too doughy for all of us, and a too tough fillet steak wrapped in bacon (what? Why!?). Other than that, chicken thigh takes the cooking process well, caramelised, crackling skin protecting the tender flesh, but as you'd expect, the real highlights are the slivers of steak, three or four different cuts or twists, served mainly rare and oozing with taste. The umami notes in the charred edges of the steak are heady and superbly flavoursome, tastebombs in your mouth to be savoured. Pork loin is another winner, unctuous porky fat delivering a whallop of taste. I'd recommend taking a thick piece of the beef shoulder too. It's a fatty cut, but takes to the churrasco grill superbly, fat rendering into moist flavour.

The salad bar disappointed a little. It's 'traditional', if you use traditional as a euphemism for cheaply prepared, fairly bland food you don't recognise. Hot sides consisted of rock solid cheese 'puffs', insipid and tasteless polenta cubes, onion rings and little breaded torpedos of deepfried plantain. The cold options were either mayonnaise based cubed veg, rice, or selections of random veg. As I say, keep it tight and leave room for the cow. Have a salad for lunch if you're worried about the state of your waistline.
Rodizio Preto on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The search for spice continues, Viet Grill - Feb 2011

Where: Viet Grill, Shoreditch

Sometimes you need more than a roast dinner on a Sunday... I've spent most of February dreary craving the clean spicy notes of South East Asian cuisine. Partly because I've been a bit ill, partly due to a (slightly unusual) craving for healthier food and mainly because when done really well it's bloody lovely. All things considered then, it was inevitable I was going to end up on the bottom end of Kingsland Road at some point. Home to a concentrated community of Vietnamese expats along with the shops and particularly the restaurants that support them. For me, I've had some great times at Song Que, abrupt perfunctory service and canteen style decor aside. One of the other gems on the street is the Viet Grill, sister to popular Cay Tre in Old Street. There are another 4 or 5 that I've been recommended to over time too, it's almost enough to make you hug a hipster and spend more time in the East End.

It's more designed than many of the cheaper cafe options along the road, fishtanks built into the walls upstairs and down, a well designed bar area and rather garish wallpaper. The tables are plain dark wood, bottles of chilli sauce stood waiting, kept clean by constant turnover. Don't get me wrong, it's not as canteen-like as Song Que, but it's definitely not somewhere you can linger over a coffee.
We went for the Cà tím nướng and the Phở cuốn to start (all of the menu items have the original Vietnamese authentically written alongside, though you won't hear many of the slim jeaned trendies who mainly fill the place these days parlaying the tiếng Việt). In translation, a silken steaming pile of slowly braised aromatic aubergine topped with spicy, caramelised minced pork and thin noodle wraps with strips of beef steak and herbs. The porky aubergine was revelatory. One of the tastiest things I've eaten this year so far.

Our mains were more of a mixed call, though more of choice and judgement than quality of the food. Dr Vole went for the Pho. Hot, spicy and packed full of rice noodles and fragrant broth, it's the dish that keeps going. I went for the Tamworth pork belly, served in a caramelised coconut juice with a side of jasmine rice. Pleasant enough, with the subtle more-ish heat of star anise and a chilli kick in the coconut juice, the texture wasn't doing it for me. Fat braised down, skin of gelatine, maybe it's my expectation of pork belly. One or two of the quivering cubes served with a crunchy salad and side (some of the veg percolating in the pho would have done the trick), but as it was, it was a lonely single texture, and rather a lot of it. one to be avoided unless you're dining with a group.

Worth a note that there's a pre-six o'clock and lunch menu, great value at £6 for a large bowl of pho. That being said, a small bowl will do most people, and free you up for other choices on a menu of spicy delight.

Viet Grill The Vietnamese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

New menu at Match Bar - Feb 2011

WhereMatch Bar, Margaret Street
How much: Small plates for around a fiver each, platters for £14

Come here if: you want to date or meet like it's 2001

One of the original London style bars. Tricked out like a Manhattan cocktail lounge with lowslung seating, exposed brick and tile walls, lighting turned low. Recent renovations have seen the intallation of comfortable booths on the lower level as well as a revamp of the menu, now matching City sister Giant Robot, though if you've been there in the last five years, I'd be surprised if you could tell the difference. 

The cocktail menu is a strong feature. Pages of classics vie with house specials behind the well stocked bar. As many purveyors of high strength liquids they fair less well with the grape and grain, beer limited to a measly selection of three bottles (one of them a weissbier) and wine proffered without comment by grape variety. Whiskey and Amaretto Sours go down well (the latter definitely not my choice) and the dirty martini, a good test of any bar, is competent, though I'm not offered a choice of preferred brand. 

Foodwise, they go with small plates. It's beer fodder at best, hearty, stodgy and male (even more surprising given the office girl and post shop clientele. I'd have thought they'd be crying out for something small, wholesome and Asian, rather than cannonball-esque mini burgers, heavy (though tasty) deep fried rice and mozzarella balls and sharing platters of charcuterie. Don't get me wrong, it's well enough done, though more suitable for soaking up pints than the cocktails more regularly quaffed. Slightly bland crostini and an odd, almost chemical guacamole are best avoided.
Match Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room - Feb 2011

WhereThe Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room, Whitechapel High Street
How much: £35 a head for 3 courses and a rather nice bottle of Montepulciano
With who: Dr Vole
Come here if: you want dinner with a cultural twist

As a concept, museum or gallery cafes are often better than they are in actuality. For every South London Gallery Cafe, serving reasonably priced and freshly prepared quality options, there's two or three like the National Gallery Cafe or the British Museum Court Restaurant; overpriced, predatory canteens sucking desperate funds from their patrons, the visual arts version of the over priced popcorn you get at the cinema. 

Ramsay protege Angela Hartnett has thrown her hat into the ring with this newly renovated matchbox sized dining room at hip East End Whitechapel Gallery. It's under her 'consultation' along with a company called Smart Hospitality. It smacks slightly of a branding exercise, but the promise of Hartnett's gutsy, honest and simple Italian cooking (along with a fascinating exhibition by collage maker John Stezaker) made us take the trek out east on a frosty February night. 

The menu is short, seasonal and flies all over the place. It's more Italian than anything, but only just... Nibbles include a gorgeously grassy olive oil, emerald green and good enough to drink straight - served with slices of sourdough. The list then divides into small and large plates, interchangeable easily, but starter and main for most people's needs. We go for a full-flavoured and rich cauliflower soup, essentially hot cauliflower flavoured cream, tasty but slightly too rich for me. Served with blue cheese beignets, these seem like a step too far. I have Cornish mackerel served with pickled fennel and harissa. It was as nice a piece of the fish as I've ever had, sweet and perfectly cooked. The fennel was a subtle side, heated slightly by the harissa, cutting through the oiliness of the fish without overpowering it. Other options included a healthy sized portion of deep fried squid and a plate of cured salmon served with a sweet mustard potato salad that Dr Vole combined with a beetroot, goats cheese and sweet potato dish for her main options, preferring these to the larger plate options on offer.

My rabbit hot pot was exceptional. Strong flavours combining well to deliver a dish the equal of anything I've eaten at York & Albany. Tiny carrot cubes gave a sweet hit to the small oven pot packed with gamey rabbit. As a side, I went for a portion of truffle chips, the only off note of the meal for me, they arrived slightly limp and over-salted. 
The dessert list is similarly bijou, but of enormous interest. A prune and almond tart was rich, moist and (from the tiny amount I was allowed to sample) perfectly balanced. My bitter chocolate pot came in the cliched kilner jar and was as nice a pot as I've had (if not necessarily bitter) set off with a lovely homemade honeycomb. 

The buzz and chatter in and about the tiny dining room appears deserved, and I hope that they're able to sustain this level of quality in the months and years to come. If you find yourself in the area, and aren't on a pilgrimage to Tayyabs, then I'd certainly suggest stopping by.
urant/London/Aldgate-East/Whitechapel-Gallery-Dining-Room-Poplar">Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Short review of the Banana Tree Canteen chain - Feb 2011

Where: Banana Tree Canteen, this review follows visits to Islington and Clapham over the course of a month or so. 

How much: starters £4 to £5 and mains around £7 to £9
Looks wise, it's a Wagamamas on a budget. Shared tables, light woods and smiling bustling servers. There's nothing particularly authentic about the way it looks, but it's become a fairly regular go-to spot when visiting Angel, and having recently visited the Clapham branch, I thought I'd proffer comment on the pair of them.

The menu is relatively extensive, covering a range of Thai and Viet dishes. As well as the standard noodle dishes (both pho and pad Thai make an appearance) they've a range of char grilled meats, some really interesting curries and stews - I can particularly recommend the Tamarind Spiced Aubergine curry - and some less interesting sounding regional specialities, I've never been fussed enough to try their sweet and sour chicken. All of these categories come as a Banana Tree main course, served almost as an Inochine thali with a small portion of glass noodles, jasmine rice, prawn crackers and a side of spicy corn cakes - a great option for a swift and inexpensive lunch. 

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A review of so-so Thai Silk - Feb 2011

Where: Thai Silk, Waterloo
How much: £9 gets you a very good value pre-theatre meal, you'll get away with under £20 for (most) other 3 course combinations 
With who: Dr Vole
Come here if: you fancy relatively subdued Thai food prior to a show at the Old or New Vic

Needing a bite to eat before a horrifically pretentious evening at the theatre, Dr Vole and I fancied something different to our standby choices around Waterloo and headed to Thai Silk (the clue's in the name) down the tiny tree lined walkway of Joan Street, just behind Southwark tube. 

I've always been a fan of spicy, aromatic and (whisper it) healthy Thai cooking, though have struggled to find anywhere that really hits the mark. I'm aware that there are a fair few in London, including Alan Yau's gourmet chain Busaba Eathai, but none of them (with the possible exception of Clapham's Pepper Tree) have really done it for me. Sadly, I don't think I've found the holy grail here. 

The cavernous space has been fashioned into a restaurant and a bar out of a double railway arch and should be capable of holding a good few hundred at a time. The atmosphere is edged by a strong lemon smell, slightly off-putting at first. Slightly more incongruous are the large flatscreen TVs. Ideal for the party of lads not wanting to miss out on Man Utd's shock defeat to Wolves, but it didn't really help create any sort of authentic Thai vibe. 

Arriving at 6.30, we were only offered the set menu. I don't know whether that's an assumption, or the only thing you can order at that time, but it looked good value at £8.95 a head, and had several dishes both of us found interesting enough not to ask for the a la carte menu. The starters came as a sharing platter. More M&S than Iceland, it still felt close enough to a pre-prepared set. The chicken satay skewers were pleasant enough, though the fish cakes were flaccid and greasy and the fried spring rolls relatively uninspired. The mains were substantial. Two big dishes each came with a heaped pile of noodles, rice and a large side plate of steaming oyster sauce braised vegetables. You certainly get value for your money. The chicken Green Curry was certainly chock full of chook, piles of tender, braised protein in the coconut and lemongrass infused sauce. Pleasant enough, it just didn't really deliver the kick it should. The other main was a wok fried duck dish served with greens. Again a hearty portion, just lacking in the rich flavour you'd hope for from a dish like this.

It's a shame, as the price and location puts it firmly into the hidden gem category, but the food just didn't have enough oomph to make me want to return.
Thai Silk on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Pepper Tree, Clapham - Feb 2011

Where: The Pepper Tree, Clapham Common
How much: Starters and soups all less than £4, noodle, curry and Pad Thai dishes around the £7 mark
Come here if: you want good value, authentic food and can cope with waiting for it.

 Batting on manfully in the face of flu (or a slight cold as Dr Vole would have it) let to a night of slight over consumption and a fight on two fronts against both drippy nose and incipient hangover. Banished from the house again, I needed a quick blast of chilli heat and went for an early lunch at The Pepper Tree.

It's a simple and popular little Thai joint opposite Clapham Common tube station. Very pared down (almost unfinished) white walls, the long bench seating and communal tables are packed solid most evenings. 

At 12:30 on a Saturday I shared it with a couple of Clapham happy families and a pair of joggers fresh from the common. Ignoring their uncommonly good Pad Thai, I briefly flirted with the idea of a deep and cheap bowl of Tom Yum soup before settling on the chicken Pepper Tree curry, their spiciest dish, guaranteed to blast away my ills.

A side of sweetcorn cakes didn't set my world (or tastebuds) alight. They are fine, nothing more. Slightly overfried and a little too doughy. The treat comes with the Pepper Tree curry, exactly what the doctor ordered. Foolishly skipping the rice, I plough straight into my bowl, nearer a soup than a curry but packed with flavour. Lemongrass, Thai basil and tamarind provide the backup complexity to a punchy peppery heat. Chicken, krachai (a mild ginger-like root used in Thai and Indonesian cooking) and bell peppers cook in the heat with Thai aubergines and green beans retaining their bite and adding texture to the bowl. It's not complex, but boy is it satisfying.
The Pepper Tree on Urbanspoon

Friday, 11 February 2011

La Perla - Mexican or Mexican't? Feb 2011

WhereLa Perla, Charlotte Street
How much: £30 a head for 2 courses and rather more than a brace of beers.
With who: The International Man of Mystery
Come here if: you need a cheap, fun and friendly, if not particularly authentic, spot for a party

Tucked under the wing of the renovated Charlotte Street Hotel. It's been around for a while, like the original Chez Gerard opposite, and is one third of a small Mexican chain in the capital.
The International Man of Mystery and I start in the Latino style basement bar, boards displaying the top tequila tipplers of years gone by. We suck Sol and ruminate. Upstairs the space is small, rickety and crowded. Small bare tables fit together jigsaw-like into the space. Old photos and advertising boards fill the walls. It's authentic Mexican in a mid 70's British way, where Alison Steadman and Felicity Kendal might have come for the exotic thrill of a taco post performance.

The menu is sparse and fairly obvious. Nacho chips and a spicy tomato dip arrive unbidden and are followed by a selection of chicken, duck and pulled beef quesadilla to share. The cheese oozing from the side puts them at the unhealthy side of hearty and it's very much there to eat with your hands. Haute it is not, but nor is it pretending to be.. They're perfect following a couple of beers, but you struggle to identify which is which.

My main, a selection plate of street tacos is fine. You'd get more innovative flavours at Wahaca, but you'd have had to wait 45 minutes for a table too, so judge it that way. The corn tortillas come topped with spiced prawns (an unexpected hit of chilli heat), chicken and duck (shredded and a little indeterminate), beef sirloin, shredded beef and shredded chicken topped with coriander and onions, served with black beans and a selection of dips. The International Man of Mystery went for a big bowl of *extra hot* chile con carne. It passed without comment, but this wasn't food to occupy attention, but a fairly solid bite of faux-Mex spice while catching up with a friend.
La Perla on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Opera Tavern, a tale of two services - Feb 2011

WhereThe Opera Tavern, Covent Garden
How much: We spent £50 a head (with our bottle of wine and two coffees comped for the reasons explained below), and ate possibly more than we should have done. You can easily escape for less than £30 a head with a glass of wine if you order well
With who: Miss Jones
Come here iffor small plates of perfection, but book or be prepared to wait

It's an old Covent Garden boozer, converted into a clever, classy little tapas bar. Split over two floors, bar stools predominate the converted pub downstairs, small table informality and big (slightly drafty) windows balance an open glass wine wall in the space up the small staircase. From the team behind one of my favourite restaurants in London, Dehesa and older brother Salt Yard, it's fair to say that the opening of the Opera Tavern had me salivating slightly. 

The strong wine list mirrors the focus at sister restaurant Dehesa. Much of the menu appears to come from their older siblings too. The focus on solid Spanish swine is happily reprised. (Slightly sloppily carved) Jamon Iberico de Bellota is excellent. Salty and sweet with a nutty marbling of divine fat daring your heart to complain. Heads of deep fried courgette flower come next, stuffed with sticky goat's cheese and drizzled with honey. 
Mini Iberico pork and foie gras burgers fall apart without their skewer, the devil's own canapé. Rich little bundles popping with flavour, they feel a little out of place here, slightly too refined and worked, but unbelievably tasty non the less. This also applied to the (thankfully grease free) 'Italian style' Scotch Eggs. A clever take on the dish, soft cooked eggs lightly rolled in a spiced pork blanket served with garlicky aoli, it just felt slightly wrong in a tapas bar. The one bum note of the night came with a Short Rib of Beef served with over-cooked polenta and over-salted cavalo nero. The meat didn't taste of much but as Miss Jones put it, "it tastes slightly of wrong". Shame that. The gnocchi, taleggio cheese and mushroom gratin made up for this side step in the quality of the food. A perfect counterpoint to the meaty dishes served alongside.
We finish our savories with the full set of three different pinchos morunos, squat charcoal grilled skewers, a little pricy at £3 a pop, but stickily well cooked. The Salt Marsh Lamb Leg with smoked paprika stands out as a favourite of the three, cooked to pink perfection within a charred carapace. 
Pannacotta with a tooth-tinglingly tangy tangerine granita was the least lardy of the puds but even that nearly finished me off. I wouldn't have had it, but our waiter was so insistent we try it. A great example of its kind, with creamy vanilla texture and biscuity swirls to give a contrast. Miss Jones had one of the interesting sheep's milk cheeses from the list, perfectly acceptable finishers to the meal. 

A tale of two services... a small note
I feel like I have to take this out of the main review, as it was obviously a ‘once off’ evening that’s unlikely to happen to anyone else subsequently, but still think that it’s a strong enough point to address. We went (unknowingly) on an evening where there were a number of invited critics, bloggers and journalists in the room and definitely felt the chill breeze of favouritism (and it certainly wasn't the slightly open window). When the two tables to either side (seated after us) were sat with groaning platters, checked on every five minutes for their thoughts, and we’d sat for 45 minutes without anything other than a drink in front of us I collared the duty manager to explain the situation. She obviously assured me that there was no special treatment other than a glass of prosecco, and it transpired that apparently our server had just failed to put our order into the kitchen. That being said, with the size of the restaurant and the amount of staff focus on the tables around me, it stuck in my craw a little that they hadn’t noticed the lack of food or bothered to check in with us for such a period of time. If we hadn’t had a bottle of wine and several weeks worth of gossip to get through, we’d have got up and left. 

Other than that (glaring) error, the staff seemed in the main knowledgeable, likeable and gearing up to be a good team. They knew their way around the menu, suggesting confidently and appropriately, and knew their wines too. It’s just a shame we had to spend most of the evening listening to them lavish this knowledge on their more important guests...  
Opera Tavern on Urbanspoon

Recent review of Bob Bob Ricard - Feb 2011

WhereBob Bob Ricard, Soho
How much: £40 - £50 a head for 2 courses and drinks, though you can go much higher if you choose
With who: The Coastguard and Trouble
Come here ifyou're in need of a dining experience that genuinely brightens your day

Where do you take a Grumbling Gourmet, an American on his first "since I could drink" trip to Europe and a bolshy pescatarian for a bite to eat after a few beers? With such diverse tastes to cater for, Bob Bob Ricard was an obvious choice. It was also directly across the street from our drinking den, the old faithful Old Coffee House) and so didn’t need much discussion.

Bob Bob Ricard has been gently settling into the London scene for nearly three years now. It wasn’t the softest of landings, due in part to a particularly exuberant launch menu which they attempted to run from breakfast - famously silver serving cornflakes and toast - to late night - a la Wolesley, a slightly unfair and unintended comparison. The reviews were weighted towards the positive, but wildly mixed, AA Gill described it as the worst opening of the year in an infamously acerbic roasting, Giles Coren was muted at best, Jay Rayner liked and while Marina O'Loughlin loved the ‘deliciously daft’ restaurant (along with several others), it certainly wasn’t universal positivity. 

They didn’t do themselves any favours with the relatively cosy cabal of top restaurateurs either. Their policy of ‘naming and shaming’ big wine mark ups at the top restaurants while guaranteeing no more than a £50 mark up was welcomed by the consumers of such big price tagged bottles, but drew fire elsewhere for highlighting the gross mark ups that are often charged. The proof is in the pudding (wine, they serve Chateau d' Yquem by the glass) and today they sell enormous amounts of wine at the £100 - £400 level that would cost you nearer £400 - £1600 in places like Hospital Road or Ducasse. Wonderful if you’re being entertained by a big city beast, mere mortals will feel safe with some solid choices (they really know their wines here) at the lower end of the spectrum or by the glass. Oh and they have a champagne button. A tableside button that summons champagne.

It’s the latter quirk that sums up the feel of the restaurant better than anything. Classy, with touches of madness. Moodily lit, marbled and packed with twists of colour, the pastel shades of the staff uniforms (pink soldier style jackets for the boys, blue waistcoats for the girls) should clash with the blue leather booths that divide the place like a large snug railway carriage, but they pull it off somehow. The room from the outside (or to the drunk) appears full of flitting birds of paradise, bobbing and weaving between the tables.

Following an instructive pre-Christmas lunch with charismatic owner Leonid (the ‘Bob Bob’ of the team) I was certainly going for one of the modern Russian starters I’d had before, with a palate cleansing vodka to bring out the flavour. As a combination it has the desired effect, leaving my taste buds ready for a creamy smooth Russian Salad, diced vegetables in thick, rich mayonnaise topped with slices of black truffle (not quite as Mother-ski would have made it, but close enough to provide a touch of home for any expat guests. They also offer herring, caviar, jellied ox tongue and pickled mushrooms (sadly no cornflakes anymore) accompanied by vodka and a range of more traditionally Western (though not specifically traditional) starters including an excellent tuna Nicoise carpaccio sampled tonight and a very good venison steak tartare. Mains similarly cross the divide between solid high end classics and Russian comfort food (the focus on the former), all cooked by a Brit. Several times I’ve been unable to tear myself from their excellent Chicken Kiev, served with a sweetcorn mash, oozing garlic through its poached then Panko crumb fried pores. 
They source well, cuts from legendary Knightsbridge meat master O’Shea’s make several appearances on the menu through an Onglet cut, a very good chateaubriand and a luxurious beef Wellington. Pescatarians fare well, with four or five solid (if not imaginative) fish options including a lobster and chips at a city beast budget of £39. Veggies less so. There’s only a single, sullen sounding cherry tomato and parmesan tarte fine, glaring down from the top of the menu like the only Goth in the room, ignored and moribund. 

Mains generally hit the £18 - £20 mark, with a few rising well above this, the house burger brings the average down, though add the obligatory fries in and you’re still looking at £18 for the plate. It is a fine burger though. The bar for top end meat patties has risen recently through the efforts of Hawksmoor, the sloppy authenticity of #Meateasy and the rise and rise of the Byron chain. BBR fits in well, though there are other options on the menu worth a look.

A slight faux pas with the bill aside, the good humoured staff are well drilled and friendly and the member’s club vibe extends to Bobby’s Bar in the basement, a perfect spot to wind down with guests after a long lunch or dinner. A solid, quirky option with well heeled friends or clients, much needed in a part of town stronger on more casual dining.

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