Sunday, 29 January 2012

Pitt Cue Co and Mishkin's - Jan 2012

Hype (n.)"excessive or misleading publicity or advertising," 1967, American English (the verb is attested from 1937), probably in part a back-formation of hyperbole, but also from underworld slang sense "swindle by overcharging or short-changing"(1926)

Don't believe the hype.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that London restaurant-land is a currently a barren desert with all roads out leading to a slew of pop up joints or casual short order cafes. Each one as breathily lauded as the other within the foodie community, welcomed into the world and birthed online with a salivatory crescendo of blurry photography and a level of preemptive sweaty palmed anticipation not seen since Take That reformed. Mishkin's, Pitt Cue Co, and Burger and Lobster are going to be packed to the rafters with the great and the gluttonous for some time to come. If you listen to the foodie community on Twitter, read reviews in newspapers or follow other food blogs, it's not hard to be swept up in the gustatory anticipation. If I'd spent a couple of million launching a new fine dining spot recently (hello Dabbous), right now I'd be kicking my PR team up and down the stairs.

Have I been to them? Of course. And as much as I protest circumstance, you're right to accuse me of being dragged along in part by the the desperately positive tide.

New York meets the East End by way of Finchley style all day Jew'ish' diner. Those who have been to other restaurants by creator Russell Norman will know the drill; small space squeezes maximum capacity with handsome bar seating, trendy and friendly staff sucked from design school by way of Diamond Jacks and a cocktail cum small sharing menu focused on comfortable classics. The only anomaly is that Mishkin's has a booking policy (finally, Norman, finally!).

The space is beautiful. Russell Norman truly is the Conran of the cozy cafe, though you need to be VERY good friends if you're getting more than two people round the postage stamp tables. 

My guests went for salt beef mac 'n' cheese, a pleasant enough concept, unfortunately overdosed with English mustard and on the runny side, missing the nutty unctuousness of the thick fontina-based sauce in sister restaurant Spuntino. 

I followed the crowds, who have been raving about the Reuben, toasted rye with layers of good pastrami, melted swiss cheese and sauerkraut. You know what though? It's just a sandwich. A messily enjoyable one with a little too much gunk for me and fundamentally - Just. A. Sandwich. After numerous reviews, outpourings on Twitter and a double page spread in the Metro, just on the sodding sandwich, it's hard to see how anywhere could live up to that level of hype. 

I went again, for post-meeting cocktails (all gin-based and very acceptable) and bar snacks of battered Brussels sprout and battered cod cheeks. Both quirky and totally fine, though neither demanded return visits in the way of Spuntino's deep fried olives. You're not going to feel hard done by when you get the bill, the staff are superb (with the possible exception of that mustard handler in the kitchen) and if you had it on your doorstep you'd be crazy not to be there regularly. It's not the second coming though...

Pitt Cue Co
Purveyors of allegedly the finest BBQ in London (not a great boast given the competition), Pitt Cue Co has built up similar levels of rabid support. Following a period slumming it Meatwagon style in a silver trailer on the Southbank, they've moved into a (slightly) more permanent space in the middle of Soho. Even at 6.30 on a Monday evening the queue is out of the door and round the corner for one of the 30 spaces in the tiny two-floor space. Luckily I'd sent Miss Jones on ahead to bag a spot on the waitlist. 

The menu is perfunctory. Two meats, two ribs and a daily special with a few sides on one page, wines, cocktails and beers on the other page. Hipster credentials are established with the imported Pabst Blue Ribbon; PBR is gassily ubiquitous in Lower East Side and Williamsburg skinny-jeaned hangouts, and so very appropriate here given the early adopter clientele. The cocktail getting the airtime is the Pickleback, a shot of bourbon and pickle juice - better than it sounds and enough to give any junior advertising executive a few hairs on their chest...

Onto the meat. They really do know what they're doing here. Short rib of rich, aged, buttery Dexter and a half portion of exemplary moist pulled pork came with pickles and garlicky greens. Miss Jones took in the heavily sauced St Louis  pork ribs and a large portion of beef brisket, slow cooked and sliced in thin slivers. Certainly the best BBQ I've had in London; though with the competition consisting of Sir Jamie's pricey and off the mark Barbecoa, the execrable Sticky Fingers and mid market hangover cure Bodeans, they didn't have to do much. 

Certainly a deeply satisfying meal, we waddled out 90 minutes later, unrushed by the splendid staff. Stifling a meaty belch as we walked past the crowds waiting for their turn I couldn't help but think that, with the experience they were going to have, over an hour stood in the cold might be bearable again.

Swindled, overcharged or shortchanged? Not at all. Misleading, possibly. Excessive publicity, certainly. Either way, don't (always) believe the hype.


Pitt Cue Co on Urbanspoon
Mishkin's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Surrey Docks Farm cafe - January 2012

The Surrey Docks Farm is a little drop of hidden London. The Rotherhithe peninsula isn't maybe the best known part of the capital, with poor transport links and some deeply unlovely squatting estates, but there's a little gem here if you do make the trek. The farm is quirky loveliness in itself; cows, pigs and goats wander around gently mugging inner city kids and parents for grain before they get turned over by the aggressive and streetwise chickens who really rule the roost.

The whole thing is run on a shoestring for the benefit of the local community by a team of volunteers who sell the fresh produce on site to bring in some funds. Piles of eggs from the strutting hens in the yard and depending on the season there's goat, lamb and pork available too. It's a working farm after all and regardless how cute the little porkers are, they taste better than they look.

Amounts of this meaty provender end up in the excellent little on site cafe, Frizzante, along with veggies one presumes are also grown here. It's a basic operation with a snug open plan kitchen and mismatching furniture. There's not a huge list on the daily chalk boards, brunches and light lunches mainly, but rewarding enough after a wander round the farm.

Breakfasts and brunches looked superb; thick tubes of sausage, golden eggs and suspiciously homemade looking toasts. A jovial notice announces they are now, once more, serving baked beans - a must for any decent fry. Very local eggs are served scrambled with bacon or thick ham slices.

Controversially, and correctly as it turned out, I went for a roasted butternut squash quiche. Real men might not eat them, but I know all of the words to Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked so felt adequately qualified. Melting roast veggies in a soft eggy duvet came snuggled into a fresh, thin homemade pastry bed. A thick slice of being tucked in at a country farmhouse B&B.

Think twice if you don't like kids. The outdoor space starved ankle biters are prone to run amuck. If you can cope (or you have rug rats of your own), it's well worth the trip.


Frizzante on Urbanspoon

Monday, 9 January 2012

Franco Manca - Another slice of Brixton Market - Jan 2012

Occupying two shallow store spaces opposite each other on the pedestrian walk through Market Row, the chaotic crowds around Franco Manca get to you just before the smell does. luckily others are either busy keeping their new year's resolutions or have moved temporarily on to the gustatory delights elsewhere in Brixton Market and we slide (un)comfortably into the slim fit church pews outside ready to worship at the altar. On a cold January day we're slightly envious of the sweat slicked artisan operators slaving away at the dual wood fired ovens, one on either side.

Things are kept simple. You're only here for one thing after all. A choice of six pizzas on the menu plus a daily specials board. Paper menu, Ikea tumblers and cutlery in tins on the table.

Toppings are mainly meaty and our special, with soft creamy wild boar mortadella is no exception, the meat going well with roasted green peppers softened and sweet from the wood fired oven.
The pizza is a chewy sourdough, fresh from those ovens, served as it comes. Being picky, ours is slightly soggy in the centre from the tomato sauce (though possibly also my over generous application of chilli infused olive oil). The crust is superb, if you can then try to bring one of the naysayers who leaves it at the side of their plate, and steal theirs too.


Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Indian options for casual Soho lunches - Jan 2012

Central London curryhounds have never had more options for relatively low budget and (occasionally) healthy options to satisfy their cravings. Over the season of goodwill I had a fair amount of lunchtimes out and seeing that the cold snap has finally arrived, a warming lunchtime ruby was a popular option. Here's a selection of my favourite casual curry emporia in and around Soho.

Roti Chai - Portland Mews South
The latest street food joint, this one round the back of Selfridges, to pay a passing nod to the Indian railway cafes and their magpie like borrowing of cultural and culinary influences. Casual table settings and a selection of small plates are ideal for lunchtime sharers. The pick of the bunch are their insanely addictive chicken 'lollipops'. Moist meat pushed up the bone, dipped in a heavily seasoned flour before a deep frier dunking. Served with a soothing dipping sauce, they're the devil's own party food. Freshly cooked samosas and papri chaat, wheaty wafers covered in spicy chickpea and cool yoghurt, also score highly. I wouldn't say it was a healthy option, but you do walk out without feeling like you've drunk a vat of cooking oil.

Moolis - Frith Street
A very quick and very satisfying lunch experience can be found wrapped in the roti rolls of Moolis. A firm favourite of mine, I'm going to miss the densely packed rolls of chicken, beef and goat now I'm no longer in Soho. I've salivated over them at greater length here and in the 18 months subsequently haven't had cause to change my views, despite many repeat visits.

Kati Roll Company - Poland Street
Another street food take out joint, this time on Poland Street. Randomly the first UK outpost of a very small Brooklyn chain, they also specialise in small curried rolls of goodness. They're thinner than the elephant legs you'll get at Moolis and with an amount less salad these definitely aren't a healthy option. Hefty doses of spice stay with you throughout the afternoon, but the minced lamb with egg is a thing of beauty and possibly one of the finest things to munch on as you stride down chilly Soho streets. 

Masala Zone - Marshall Street
A popular mini chain from the same stable as Chutney Mary and Veeryswamy focussing on good value curries and thalis. It's nothing life changing, a decent enough spot for a little bit of what you fancy (and what you know...) Starters are better than the mains in general and the lunch special is worth a look if you're in with a bigger group. 

Dishoom - St Martin's Lane
I wasn't massively impressed when I first went, but enough people are talking about its slightly corporate take on Indian cafe culture for it to be worth a think about. The tourists will be frotting against the windows of Jamie's Italian and so you should be able to get a table here if push comes to shove and you can't persuade your lunch partners any further.

Roti Chai on Urbanspoon

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Kati Roll company on Urbanspoon

Mooli's on Urbanspoon

Masala Zone Soho on Urbanspoon

New kid on the block - the Dim Sum Diner - Jan 2012

Great dim sum is one of the world's best meals. A range of tiny parcels and baked goodies, subtly fragranced and served hot from the kitchen to order, ideal for sharing. Average dim sum is forgettable, instantly fading in the memory, good as a temporary pitstop but not really anything more.

Sadly new kid on the block Dim Sum Diner falls firmly into the latter category. It filled a hole, but even an hour after eating Teacher Boy and I struggled to remember the detail of the ones we liked. Writing this up a few days later and I had to fall back on photographs.

There's nothing wrong with the location; a small unit on the populus Queensway drag. The decor is relatively inoffensive; clean, plain and primary coloured surfaces and Wagamamma's style furniture. The staff are friendly, efficient and attentive - the fact we were the only ones in may have helped this. To an extent my ennui came from the prosaic and unimaginative menu; offering a range of dim sum 'classics' (though no cheung fun oddly) and small plate Chinese dishes alongside a random handful of diner fare; mini hot dogs, burgers and a battered fish dropped into the mix for no discernible reason.

Of the good, we enjoyed a punchy and fresh if not terribly authentic Dan Dan Noodle dish. Chilli calmed from the dish's Sichuan street peddlar roots, interpreted here as mince and noodles in a light spicy gravy rather than the tongue tingling peasant soup I would have liked. Still, it was filled with meat and certainly pleasant enough. Pan fried Peking pork dumplings came with moreish dipping sauce, crisp skins and the heat of several suns inside. Steamed pork Xiao Long Bao and hot white clouds filled with sticky Char Sui were perfectly fine. Hot and freshly prepared, I had nothing against them, though the claims that they were 'made in-house with fresh ingredients' were tested by the delivery man walking pre-prepped trayfuls through the restaurant from the outside street.

Sadly the meal went awry with the PR's recommendations. Interesting on paper, disastrous in the mouth. Barbeque Pork Puff Rolls were over-fried cigars with a thick carapace managing to be cloyingly dusty and oil soaked at the same time and filled with red hot viscous gloop. Prawns in a vermicelli crust were drowned in a sweet and sickly mustard sauce that unpleasantly reminded me of an 'experimental' and unsuccessful take on salad cream. Guinness crab meat dumplings were as wrong as they sound.

Despite that, there's much to like. The staff were lovely, the basic dumplings were acceptable and portions are less than £4 each, so it's a reasonably cheap variant, even compared with Soho standards. I'd come back again if I lived or worked in the area though couldn't see myself making a special trip unfortunately.

 Dan Dan Noodles (above) and prawns in a mustard salad cream combi
 The brains below are the Guinness Crab Dumplings... 
Dim Sum Diner on Urbanspoon