Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Review of La Brasserie - Aug 2011

WhereLa Brasserie, South Kensington
With who: The Poker Shark 

How much: £10-£16 for starters, salads upward of £14, mains were divided into fish and meat and were around £20 on average. We didn't pay for the meal (read on...) but it would have been £110 for two without service 
Come here ifyou miss the good old days of British restaurant underachievement.

In the Chelsea heartland, opposite Conran's venerable stalwart Bibendium, sits the brasserie that time forgot. There's a point in recent history acknowledged by all at which time all restaurants were rubbish. Ask your parents if you don't remember it. It was the 70's... the eating out one could do in the country without spending a serious amount of cash was limited to the soggy pub sandwich, fish n chips and the occasional treat at an Angus Steak House. In and outside the capital, 'foreign' foodstuffs like Chinese, Italian or Indian were treated with a modicum of suspicion and restaurants were grand, fusty and open for a couple of hours a day at best. The opening then in 1972 of La Brasserie must have seemed like a bold step forward for the poor folk of South Ken, coming 15 years before Simon Hopkinson, king of casual dining, picked up a knife across the road.

That's certainly how the restaurant's own website grandly remembers it, the first in London of its type, espousing the French style of all day eating and paving the way for 'large groups such as Conran who picked up their flexible approach to eating'... How Terrence must have cheered. Step on 40 years and the foodie landscape, particularly in London, has changed somewhat. You know what's occurred in the intervening years and, possibly due to their own innovations way back in '72, the faux Parisienne schtick of La Brasserie is an anachronistic nightmare.

The classic all day brasserie menu comes straight from the 70's. This in itself wouldn't be a bad thing. Simple fare that if cooked well can't be beaten. You don't need to be a great chef to get it right, but a brasserie is more than the sum of its parts, that's the point. Atmosphere is critical, as are the staff: when successful, both are warm and inviting while the latter is also efficient and snappy. Sadly none of these were the case... Walking in at 6.30 on a Thursday we were the only guests other than a brace of ladies who should have finished lunching by now and a florid ex hack and Private Eye target, making his younger, more attractive companion laugh uproariously. Over the next hour, this gradually changed, with the restaurant filling up with the trainspotter's guide to the King's Road. Ruddy young fillies and their polo shirt clad squires, Middle aged and well padded gents with that type of blonde 'companion' and slightly older gents with their wives daring a surreptitious sneak at the bronzed legs of the surly waitresses. A scene for the obscene.

The Poker Shark went for fridge-cold prawn cocktail in a sharp Marie Rose sauce served in half an avocado. A venerable dish, much like the wilted iceberg lettuce that propped it up in the bowl. A renegade from Abigail's Party, thankfully retired from most menus, here it seemed so perfectly appropriate. I got a little luckier going for 6 bland but innocuous snails, perched parsimoniously on their shells, reluctant to dive into the watery garlic slick, worried they'd bang their heads on the just-covered base.

I followed that with one of the simplest dishes on the menu, here executed with a style and panache not seen since Ann Widdecombe's last dance class. Like a classic Martini, I've found the steak tartare a good acid test of an establishment in the past. Simple ingredients, a painless recipe and absolute perfection when done with a modicum of care. The tartare had a grey-green hue, from a distance disconcerting, closer up it became obvious it had way too much acrid gherkin chopped through the mix, a small amount of (albeit vinegary) relief, though not much. The salty, floppy shoestring fries slopped down next to it were as unpleasant.

It would appear I'd ended up the winner though, again, if you could call it a winning experience. The Poker Shark went for duck confit, a classic brasserie dish, the staple of French railway cafes up and down the country. Here the meat came almost medium rare, clinging determinedly to the bone. Plonked across a kilo of red cabbage, rubbery skin draped over the undercooked duck, folding into the dips and wrinkles, like a geriatric Blind Date contestant covering her saggy bits with a coquettish satin throw.

Given that the Poker Shark is astoundingly British, I knew he was being stretched too far when he ruminated about complaining. Blank-eyed staff took the semi-full plate away without asking about our enjoyment. They looked like they knew the answer and we didn't get a chance to say a word. Against all sense of sanity (I'll explain why we bothered in a second) we were somewhat saved by desserts. Creme Brûlée was pre-prepped and fridge cold, but whoever had made it originally knew what they were doing. A Tarte Tatin was excellent, sticky and caramelised and toothsome, but this was a little too little and a lot too late.

In case you are wondering, we stayed for dessert and didn't bolt half way through the main as we'd been invited to review the restaurant. I'd been wondering how, like other critics, I should react to PR invites and, rarely one to turn down a meal - much less a free one - had decided that I'd accept, as long as I could go incognito and reveal myself (with a letter, calm down at the back) at the end of the meal. The PR team who arranged this were friendly and efficient - however, whilst you can get a reviewer in, if the experience is as bad as this, surely they'd be better off advising the owners to stick to their local time-warp of a crowd or take a good long look at what's going on in the kitchen.

La Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Monday, 29 August 2011

Song Que - souper Kingsland Road canteen - Aug 2011

WhereSong Que, Shoreditch
With who: Dr Vole, The Ginger Prince and the Ginger Coconut Candy

How much: With a large beer each we got out on just over £50 for the four of us... the bowls of trademark Pho are £7.50 and you'll really struggle to spend more than £15 a head.
Come here if: you need to detox with a fresh bowl of spicy beef noodle soup.

A unique skill is needed to be a silver service waiter. The finesse comes with the ability to get plates of elegantly presented food to, and finished plates from, a customer in as organised a fashion as possible. The reveal adds to the art, plates delivered and removed with the bare minimum of fuss and if you ever watch an exponent of the art, he or she can clear your table effortlessly, any detritus at the end of the meal less than a hiccup in their perfect plan for your dining. The team at Song Que would, I suspect, laugh at this description of the role of a waiter. Here there really is only one aim, to get you through as quick as possible to make room for the next party already huddled round the entrance. No reservations taken and no quarter given. Get in, order, eat and get out...

A large, high ceilinged space, clean, perfunctory and sparsely decorated with the sort of geometric, clashing, faux leather backed chairs you'd find in an Essex boys dining room in the 80's. There's a large painting on one wall, it might be of a village in Vietnam, local to the owner, it might equally be from nearby Broadway market, the design isn't the point here. There are nods to the 'proper' way to do a restaurant, an attempt at an unused back bar for example. A random bottle of Baileys sits on the shelf, disconsolately explaining to a neighbouring dusty Malibu that the vast majority of the punters will be going straight for one of the many different fresh juices, or the imported delights of Hue or Saigon, crisp Vietnamese lagers that cut through the spice to follow.

With the service being so speedy, you'll be pleased to know the preparation is very much planned in advance. Of all the dishes Vietnamese cuisine is known for my favourite is the humblest, a bowl of Pho done well has few equals. Light beef stock simmered for hours with a blend of spices including fennel, coriander and star anise (there's a good recipe here if you're looking to cook at home) before the meats are dumped in at the last minute, bean sprouts and aromatics left to be added tableside. It's the speciality at Song Que, with nearly 30 variants, and after a selection of starters, a keenly priced bowl filled with noodles, that broth, melting thin sliced steak and a scattering of tripe and tendon (worth it, and so soft here) is enough for most people. There's such a depth of flavour in the stock that you're not going to want to season with the obligatory Sriracha hot sauce, but I tend to dip the strips of beef and tripe in to a side pot, but then I'm a chilli hound. 

Coming back to the starters, a few are worthwhile and interesting, though the Pho really is the thing. (If you want a selection of authentic and delicious Vietnamese starters to build a meal around then nearby Viet Grill is possibly a better option.) We went for their standout grilled beef in betel leaves, the soft and juicy little packages sweetly moreish, fried spring rolls, softshell crab and squid (the latter a little too batter coated for me, though it went swiftly enough). 

While it's not somewhere for a date, the sight of you licking Pho from your chin is enough to put off all but the most ardent admirers, it's one of the better places for a ribsticking pre or post session bite or a swift lunch along the Kingsland Road.

Song Que on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Bleeding Heart bistro - Aug 2011

Where: The Bleeding Heart, Farringdon
With who: A whole load of us, for Mrs International Traveller's birthday
How much: £7 /£9 for starters, £11 / £18 for mains
Come here if: you're looking for good quality if unexciting food without the price tag of the main restaurant.

Caveat - some two hours and some more wine after this dinner, I was in a small room in a karaoke bar belting out musical standards and Elton John hits after way too much white wine. Some details may not be well remembered.

Bleeding Heart Yard is a little cobbled church to the consumption of meat and the libation of wine. Their own vineyard supplies the later, house red, white and rose all coming from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand and exceptional quality for the price.

Thee are four venues clustered round the yard, each different but with strong similarities and approaches. I've eaten at the main restaurant before; gutsy and accomplished, if not anything spectacularly unique. Luckily the local suits don't appear too bothered, filling the rough wood hewn space daily. They also run a little tavern and cater for events under nearby St Ethelred's church, an atmospheric crypt seemingly designed for the timeless menu of steak and sundries. I've been to a couple of evenings there too and enjoyed what they're capable of for event dining, so while my expectations for the bistro weren't impossibly high, I was looking forward to seeing how the menu translated to a more casual setting.

As mentioned, the kitchen doesn't attempt anything too tricky, and serves up no shocks. A starter of foie gras and chicken liver terrine was perfectly competent, if a little too smooth in consistency. A week later I struggle to recall it. The rib eye steak was likewise, a perfectly acceptable accompaniment to an evening with friends, but not something that should trouble the Premier League players at Hawksmoor or Goodman.

The 'safety first' approach extended to the waiting staff too it would seem, a wry smile came with the whispered argument between the waiting staff and one of the guests over the steak hache, a rough French patty of chopped beef steak, lightly cooked as a very loose hamburger. He, son of a French butcher and wise in the ways of meat, wanted it blue, they were initially very unwilling, fearing who knows what, if a steak isn't 'safe' enough to be served blue, it's probably not safe to serve at all...

Overall, the bistro didn't hit the (albeit safe) highs of the main restaurant, but is a good quality local standby in an area that loses out gastronomically to nearby Clerkenwell. It won't cause you any problems, unless you're a Frenchman who likes his meat raw...


Bleeding Heart on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The Crooked Well, pitch perfect local restaurant in the Pub of Death - Aug 2011

WhereThe Crooked WellCamberwell
With who: J School
How much: £6/£7 for starters, mains about £15 (a tad pricey for the area, but what you'd expect for the quality)
Come here if: You want really good pub plus cuisine and can't be bothered trekking to East Dulwich

I've talked before about the difficulty of the Restaurant of Death. That sad spot repeatedly filled with restaurateur after restaurateur desperately trying to work with a location that no one ever seems to go to. The Crooked Well is definitely in one of these, or rather has been. In recent incarnations it's been a Parisian cafe, a local pub and a trendy cocktail bar, and that's just the last two years.

The stripped back aesthetic, necessary to remove layers of paint from so many recent refurbs, is both understandable and sympathetic and the new owners have done a fair amount with the look. Currently, comfortable wooden chairs and pre-laid tables occupy most of the old boozer. There are a few sofas, but this is a restaurant that you feel comfortable having a drink in, rather than a pub. In short, the refurb works pretty well.

A cheerfully chippy website describes the story of four friends settling on a pub to share and show their passion for great food, the kind of guff that so often ends up being a marketing line, here I'm fairly sure it's not. The service shows this, on our Wednesday night visit it's friendly, relaxed and assured.

Elsewhere on the website they talk about an obsession with British food, in actuality a loose descriptor for modern gastro style dishes, a loose concatenation of rustic, European influences. Starters, generally around the £7/8 mark include smoked salmon, pork belly (with an intriguing tuna creme fresche) and squid ink risotto. On first visit we didn't sample any of them, though I was sorely tempted by duck confit and a chicken terrine served with a mango salsa.

Following beers from a reasonable selection, we went for the house special, a shared rabbit and bacon pie with a side of greens. Thankfully there's no effort to sell up either on the reasonably priced menu or wine list, and along with an enormous fluffy puff of pastry crust, the buttery, wilted greens are more than adequate. Underneath the fresh baked crust there's almost more filling than we can cope with. At least a rabbit's worth of meat, slow cooked to melting point with just enough bacon to give the rich flavour a salty, smoky overcoat.

Stuffed and struggling after finishing the braised bunny, the atmosphere's enough to keep us for a coffee, though neither of us have enough room for puds. I could possibly have had a go on their cheeseboard, £2 a lump with some really interesting suggestions. Next time though, and there will be a next time. I think this place is a stayer.

Crooked Well on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Trinity - affordable fine dining, daahn Saaarf (London) - July 2011

Where: Trinity, Clapham Common
With who: Dr Vole, Tom and Barbara Good (a pair of Fringe First winning actors, comedians, our co-allotmenteers and all-round bloody good types)
How much: £70 a head for a 5 course tasting menu with wine pairings
Come here if: You're scared of South London, this bit is like Islington (in that it's a bit faux and full of idiots wearing Jack Wills)

Along with that cheese restaurant on the Kings Road (three courses of fromage, how could it not be), the Gilbert Scott and Nandos in Camberwell, Trinity is one of those places that's been on my 'to-do list' for a while. It wasn't higher up, mainly as I tend to save the fine dining for really special occasions, or when someone else is picking up the cheque, and to be honest, there's a limit to the number of business meetings I can organise in SW4. So when the lovely folks at Squaremeal Magazine decided I'd won a prize for my review of Spuntino and gave me £250 to spend at a restaurant of my choice, Trinity seemed like an solid choice.

Just off the rather picturesque Polygon Square in Clapham's gentrified Old Town, Trinity is far enough from the Ozzie bars and general high street chicanery to feel a little bit out of London. Looking out of the large plate windows at the summer green of the Common, watching the yummy mummy brigade pile past in their SUVs, you really could have been in any well-heeled provincial town in Southern England. 

Inside is the same, the decor is well enough thought out, by someone who's obviously spent a fair amount of time around fine dining restaurants, but it's not a feature. Shades of Farrow and Ball with anonymous arty black and white prints - classy restaurant 101, I'm starting to hope there's a little more imagination behind the pass. The crowd is a well heeled local mix of retirees, professional couples on 'special' dates and what's obviously grandfather's birthday party, nothing arch about that, it's a local restaurant and perfectly sums up the community that live in the grand Victorian terraces along the tree-filled local avenues (well, the ones who can afford to eat here anyway).

Service is very friendly and in the most part efficient, a shared plate of sweet fresh radishes and freshly picked pea pods arrived promptly and were a lovely start to the meal, though we were left waiting for breads and water for a good 10 minutes after that.

The tasting menu kicked off trumpeting the finest of British summer, a flavoursome if slightly too cold pea and mint soup 'presented' at the table in an old fashioned milk bottle and poured over lemon purée and ricotta, a knowing smirk at finer dining outfits.The wine pairing for the course emphasised the national theme with a Chapel Down Primrose Hill, not my cup of tea (nor glass of wine), but a pleasant enough accompaniment.

The Gruner Veltliner that came with the second course was much more on the money for me, a complex spicy white with notes of white pepper and the perfect foil to a small but perfectly formed disc of seared tuna served with wilted baby pak choi and a tiny salsa of indeterminate but tasty orange colour. Accomplished cooking with great ingredients, it was good, bordering on very good but didn't quite hit the heights somehow.

My remembrance of the third course is hazy, it could be the wine, a sweet aromatic slap of muscat was heavenly, enough to convert one to a difficult grape. Looking at the menu I vaguely remember it as a scallop dish, with a white gazpacho and a fizzy yet funny pickled grape. The solo bivalve was plump and fresh but well, a little bland, in a forgettable gazpacho sea. Single scallops need to be make an effort, they've got to draw your attention to them, like a solo guest at a party, and this one was sat in the corner looking at the DVD collection.

We ended with the best, for me at any rate, a genuinely sensational duck dish. Plump cuts of breast served with an exquisite pastile of dark duck leg. Rich, salty and thoroughly tasty, earthy girolles melted into the juice and the whole thing balanced by sweet spinach. It brought the meal alive and really showed what the kitchen was capable of.

Pudding got the requisite oohs and aahs. Thick and sticky Valrhona chocolate cream with honeycomb and almond didn't show a great imagination, but delivered perfectly what it set out to do. I had an eye on three huge cloches behind us containing a quantity of rich and oozing cheese, sadly on my own in this, I had to settle for a more sociable coffee.

In hindsight, I'm probably being overly critical. I had a wonderful meal, though the quality of the company guaranteed that, with some great wines at a restaurant I'd eat at regularly if it was on the doorstep. There are flashes of brilliance from the kitchen, and the staff are close enough to where they need to be. But only one dish out of five will trouble my best of the year list, and that's just not enough for the price.

Trinity on Urbanspoon