Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cay Tre Soho - Imitation doesn't always flatter - May 2010

Where: Cay Tre, Soho 
With Who: The Poker Shark
How much: £15 a head without drinks
Come here if: you can't get to Kingsland Road, Rosa's is full and you've got a real craving for South Asian food.

Owned by the same group behind Kingland Road's venerable Viet Grill and Old Street institution Cay Tre, both of which I'm a big fan of, to say I was looking forward to this would be an understatement.

Something felt different on walking in. The other two feel organic, a product of their local markets and clientele but Cay Tre Soho feels different somehow; clean and crisp design but more corporate, more manufactured and a little soulless somehow... It's almost as if someone has bought a franchise and is planning a Byron / Wahaca style roll out. I should clarify this is definitely not a bad thing if done well.

The premise is simple, authentic Vietnamese dishes. There's a huge amount of choice on a bright and attractive double sided menu, shorter than the other locations but still full of promise. It picks up favourites of mine from the East (End), such as the legendary Shaking Beef, a garlicky wok fried rib eye and the steamed whole roast Tiger Chicken. They also hit the obvious bases with a good selection of Pho noodle soups. We attempted to share a portion of crispy pork spring rolls and a Cha La Lot. The former, deepfried vermicelli noodles surrounded a spiced, minced pork sausage, had been a little too long in the fryer, they arrived over hard and with a slick of oil. The latter, ground pork in betel leaves, just didn't arrive.

The Poker Shark had a Dong Du lamb chop curry, a deep and complex sauce thickly coating a brace of juicy chops. This was what I was hoping for, solid honest fare with a real bite. Sadly I went for a less impressive Com Saigon, missing the grilled pork chop, effectively just a lukewarm pork fillet with rice and an egg. Some spice came from the chilli sauce side but this wasn't accomplished cooking.

The staff welcome warmly on arrival but elsewhere were as as brusque as I've come to expect at the other branches - I certainly don't believe that the customer is always right, but calling someone a liar when they query a none arriving item isn't going to win repeat business.

I'll be back I'm sure. For the area it's been an under represented cuisine and I do fearsome love a good pho. It succeeds for me by proximity and I'll give them a lot of leeway for the heritage and respect I've got for the owners and what they've achieved before. I'm just going to let them settle in and calm down a bit first before I'm back though.
Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon

Monday, 23 May 2011

Salaam Namaste - a quietly confident curryhouse in King's Cross - May 2011

Where: Salaam Namaste, Kings Cross
With Who: a whole heap of reprobates
How much: £30 a head for curry, rices and breads, (a lot of) lager and service
Come here if: you've run out of options in King's Cross and can't face the walk into town

So we needed a curry house. For ten people. Nothing too clever or too different but somewhere that would satisfy my foodie pretensions. And, at the request of Lebanese Al, over for a very short visit from Beirut, somewhere that served Chicken Tikka Masala... oh yeah, and we needed it in King's Cross.

Sometimes a total lack of options helps sharpen the focus. Once we'd ruled out the fantastic Eritrean restaurant Addis (for its lack of Tikka Masala) and veto'ed the shit in a tray merchants along Pentonville Road we were left with one choice, Salaam Namaste. I say only one choice, it had been checked out slightly. Telegraph critic Matthew Norman has rated it his favourite Indian restaurant in London and it's the only one in the area covered by Charles Campion's excellent local restaurant guide. Preparation prevents piss poor performance. Or so my teachers told me. And thankfully it's true in this case, preparation led us to a pot of gold.

It certainly doesn't look like much. Large open windows, bright generic decor and furnishings combine with the sub continental muzak to make the place timeless and placeless, and not in good ways. The food on the other hand is as lively, fresh and refined as you could want for. Poppadoms and zingy pickles took the edge off our hunger as we scanned the diverse menu. They don't seem to have any regional specialism, bouncing from West to East coast taking in

My lamb barra kebabs, an Afghan speciality, were small but perfectly formed. Cooked to a deep pink and charred on the outside by the heat of the tandoor, the spice kick came after a sweet and unusual taste of kachri or dried cucumber powder, a regional ingredient and not one i've tasted before. A 'tarragon' squid dish also stood out, partly because the predominant herb was a clean and (for sub continental cuisine) unusual shot of dill. The squid was soft and sweet, like al dente pasta of the sea.

The mains were similarly intriguing. They too zipped around the region, like a hyper-active Michael Palin, taking in treats from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and every nook of India. Conventional curries lurked for the unadventurous. A dry beef curry came spicy with citrus sour kick and a wonderfully subtle Welsh lamb biriyani arrived authentically and theatrically with the bone protruding through a thin dough 'lid'. Other standouts included a refreshing and light Goan green curry with tangy tamarind and a clever vegetable side of mixed peppers and onions dry fried with a coconut crusting. The targeted Tikka Masala was pronounced perfection on a plate by Lebanese Al, but the sauce was too astringent for me. The chicken was well enough cooked but I didn't feel the love here.

It wasn't particularly busy but we didn't arrive till 9.30. At lunch, and earlier in the evening, I've a feeling it'll be packed with lawyers from the many nearby courts though it's cheap enough and authentic enough to garner an audience among the sub continental students around Russell Square.

Salaam indeed...

Salaam Namaste on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Le Relais de Venise - May 2011

WhereLe Relais de Venise, Marylebone
With Who: Mr Pipes
How much: £25 a head with drink and service (no pud...)
Come here if: you're terrible at making choices

In the slightly rarefied surrounds of Marylebone, Le Relais feels like a bit of an anachronism. It's a French style old school canteen of a place that wouldn't feel out of place on the Left Bank with waitresses in formal maid's outfits, paper table cloths and decor that hasn't been touched since the 80's. Oh, and they only serve one dish. One. A plate of steak frites. I exaggerate slightly, if you force me to include the lettuce and walnut salad you get for a starter and the short dessert list of French classics, but your main course options are limited to one. Un. Eine. Uno. Served rare or medium.

Now if you're going to do that, you better be bloody sure that you've got the right dish and you're cooking it perfectly. Since for me, steak and chips is pretty much my perfect dish and certainly my last meal (on the proviso I die in close proximity to Hawksmoor or Peter Luger), this should be my perfect restaurant.

It's certainly not up in that rarified company, though neither are the steaks £30-£40 a pop. It's not 'alf bad though... The Parisian sibling is just known as L'Entrecote so you'd expect the steak to be an entrecote cut - or rib-eye as you might see it called elsewhere. It feels like something else though, faux fillet or sirloin, as there's less marble than you'd expect and it's just not as flavoursome as I'd want from a rib-eye. You receive it in two parts, the second held back and kept warm by the team of French maids, served with yet more shoestring frites. This is often disconcerting for the newbie, as the first tranche of meat is a good sized portion on it's own.

Their USP comes with the sauce. A thick tasty secret recipe sauce in the truest sense, it's got a kick of white mustard, thyme and a thousand and one other ingredients. It's an interesting accompaniment and though pleasantly spiced, it doesn't overwhelm the steak at all.

A weird and wonderful old establishment, and certainly somewhere you should come at least once. The concept started in Paris and has (very) slowly spread over the last 50 years to take in 2 branches in London and another, relatively recent, in New York. It's not the finest steak you'll ever have, but it's competently cooked, quality meat at a reasonable price in a quaint setting.

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Dogfather at The Rye - May 2011

I'm a bugger for a burger..

I can bang on for hours about the ideal combinations of meat, the perfect cooking method, the multitudinous possible accompaniments and the side I'll take in the schism between proper cheese and the processed American slice (go for the slice, every day, ideally melted into the burger during the cooking). I'm not alone with this, in certain circles, the conversation on the perfect burger is one that can go on for hours.

Unfortunately, there's just not enough to play with when it comes to hot dogs... at the end of the day, the fundamental ingredient just isn't enough to get me excited. A good burger patty is something you can define, argue about, explore and worship. A good hot dog (rather than a sausage) is a bland smooth tube waiting to be doused in a supporting sauce.

Which is a massive shame for the Dogfather. A simply lovely gent by the name of Cooper who, with his dog Blue, travels South East London bringing the gospel of the gourmet 'dog to the masses. And boy does he do well with such an unpromising base.

The hot dogs are as promised, both beefy and juicy made from the finest quality purest meat, with a range of wildly, wonderfully original toppings ranging from the Mexican Elvis (pinto bean sauce, jalapeneos, cheese sauce and grilled onions) to the Snoop Dog (BBQ sauce, streaky bacon, green onions and cheese). The imagination behind these, I'm going to leave you to guess what's in the Cactus, the Collie and the Slum Dogs, is undoubted. The care and attention to detail behind them also unquestionable.

The pair of them are now regulars at East Dulwich's Northcross Road Market and have recently started appearing on Sundays at the recently reopened Rye pub on Peckham Rye. If you're in the neighbourhood it's well worth stoping by to say hello.

The Rye on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Rosas - Thai in Spitalfields Apr 2011

Where: Rosa's, two branches, Shoreditch or Soho
With Who: Most recently with Miss Jones
How much: starters around £6-£8, mains between £11-£14
Come here if: you need a quick spicy hit of authentic Thai or are angling for a reliable dinner option in two very busy locations

I'm a sucker for Thai or Viet food. Often claiming it's a healthy option, I'll quite happily drag people along to Pho or Rosa's in Soho every day of the week.

Despite the extensive menu here, I always get menu tourettes in Thai restaurants. This goes double for starters, no matter how many times I think about the Poo Nim Thai Herb (Deep-fried soft shell crab topped with Thai herbs, shallots and spicy fresh chilli sauce) and it's chewy salty fresh goodness, I end up with their, admittedly excellent, fried and fresh spring rolls.

Mains are similarly exciting, and are definitely worth pushing the envelope for. Pad Thai, Green Curry, Jungle Curry and a few other staples appear reasonable, but other than a passing graze at a prawn Pad Thai, I've always diversified and dived straight into their excellent char grill and stir fry options.

Big flavours and big dishes. For just under £8, the beef sirloin 'salad' Yam Nuea Yang is a substantial enough main, with strips of juicy meat soaked in a tart, peppery marinade. The Pad Kra Pow is another good value option under a tenner, capable of being charged for more than that. A dry dark and extremely spicy take on the popular peasant dish, often made with minced meat, here with strips of tender beef or chicken it's a winner. Another signature dish well worth recommending is the Nuar Kwang Pad Prig Thai Dam, a mouthful of a title as long as the description. Silky stir-fried venison, soaked in a tongue humming peppery sauce. If there were one dish here that I just had to keep going back to, this would be it.

They're both light, bright locations and suitable for casual business lunches, pre-theatre (especially when you consider the queues at frankly over-rated Soho neighbour Busaba Eathai) and dates, however can get noisy when busy. The staff are friendly often very much so, but aware when busy that table turning means extra bunce. At £25 a head, it's not the cheapest option and shouldn't be viewed as such, but it's a good quality, authentic and interesting place to casually dine.
Rosa's on Urbanspoon
Rosa's Soho on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Eating round Europe - a confession - May 2011

Most people (by which I mean those with families, and those who don't entertain or travel for a living) tend to eat out at restaurants maybe a couple of times a month and when they do, are much more likely to have curry, Chinese or pizza, rather than the food that they could prepare at home. That was certainly what going for dinner at a restaurant meant when I was growing up. We'd occasionally go to a pub in a nearby village for a Sunday roast or posh restaurant in our local hotel (generally with guests or for a birthday) but this was to my mind generally an inferior version of the food my mother would cook and without the possibility of Angel Delight for dessert.

The rise of the gastropub may have given us another option, but things ain't changed much since the 80's and the same goes for Mittel Europe. There's little point travelling to provincial Europe and expecting to get a true sense of the local cuisine. It's like travelling to Grantham and expecting the best of British to be assembled for your delectation. It won't be.

Sure you can find plates of pork of various sizes; extruded into sausage (or wurst...), beaten into breadcrumbed submission as a schnitzel or simply served sliced with dumplings or gnocchi like spatzele. But this is often a pale imitation of the foods assembled in family homes, and just not what people (other than tourists) want to come out and eat... 

The best meals we ate across Germany and Switzerland came in two restaurants recommended and frequented by locals, a trendy yet simple Thai in Luzern (at the same price as Michelin starred dining in London or New York, but that was the exchange rate rather than the locals ripping us off) and a Tex Mex joint in Freiburg where we joined families and students on dates to dine on cheap, inauthentic Mexican.  How's that for fitting in with the locals...