Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mele e Pere - A quietly confident new Soho Italian - Feb 2012

Please go to Mele e Pere. Seriously. Somebody really needs to.
Over dinner, I was listening to tales from Dr Vole who had spent the day shuttling a visitor from the Greater United States of America round the conference venues of Greater London. Already less than impressed by the state of our fair city, he at least had managed to avoid the centre of it. On encountering that perfect shitstorm of British planning mediocrity, Leicester Square, wouldn't it have been fantastic to tell him the tale of how the entire sorry quadrangle was airlifted to create a town in the Midlands before the Blitz, saving one depressing concrete lump for future unfortunate generations, while creating a permanent building site in the heart of the capital, an enduring monument to the continual change and development that goes on in our lovely city. I had cause to be grateful to our transatlantic kin tonight though. Without a table of whooping', hollerin' good ol' boys from the US of A, we'd have been virtually alone in Soho's newest gastronomic development, casual Italian basement diner Mele e Pere. 

We were guided in by a gaudy wall of glass baubles, a pretty addition to an unlovely street but sadly for them not a clear enough indication of what lies within. Tripping down the steps brought us to a large subterranean cavern, whitewashed and well spaced with a lost and found furniture aesthetic created from a Habitat filled junk store.

Starters come from a short rustic selection, expertly matched by the Italian focused wine list. An explosively fruity half bottle of Puglian Primativo worked well as a bridge between the two courses. The well described and accessible list gives a little more info than what is at times a blunt and monosyllabic menu. Spoilt by Polpo and Bocca Di Lupo I found the lamb and mint polpettes as solid and bland as a chubby public school boy and soft tasty rose veal spoilt by pointlessly raw artichoke.

Thankfully things looked up, and rapidly, with the pasta course. There are no half portions here as you'd find in Zucca so it's an either / or between pasta and mains. Tagliatelle with ox cheek ragu was silky, sensual and substantial, if a little salty. Tiny cheek chunks and fragrant tomatoes came sparingly curled round yolky firm carbohydrate curls. The spring vegetable ravioli were also exceptionally well made parcels, albeit with more ricotta than anything else inside.

Tiramisu arrived like an over-exuberant busty hug from Nigella Lawson. Creamy, boozy and oh so slightly wrong. After a heavy hunk of pasta it's almost a step too far. Enough, almost too much, to share.

By the time we left, just after 9pm, a restaurant that deserved to be much busier was almost entirely empty. We walked out into Soho feeling it should be past our bedtime, like seeing a film during the day. It's a shame and I genuinely hope it improves. It wasn't perfect, but at £30 a head for two courses and wine I felt we'd eaten well. An uncomplicated, inexpensive Italian in tourist ground zero deserves a wider audience.

Mele e Pere on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Regency Cafe - Feb 2012

Sometimes only a fry will satisfy... 

The Regent Cafe is what people think of when they imagine a 'proper greasy spoon'. Decent priced, decent grub for the hard working men and women of the post war years. Formica tables, gingham curtains, a rattling coffe machine and cabbies sucking up industrial strength cups of tea. OK it's 50 years on now, but the Regent hasn't seemingly changed much from that socialist post war ideal, albeit that the brickie can't have a smoke after his ham, eggs, fried slice and the cabbie squeezes in amid more monied Pimlico residents and trendy Asian tourists (the latter location spotting from photoshoots in Japanese Vogue and appearances in Brighton Rock.) 

A full breakfast with tea, toast, extra hash browns and black pudding comes to a princely £6.80. You'll struggle to finish it, even if you have just come off a building site. Plump properly porky sausages, decent (if slightly too salty) bacon and bright yellow eggs belie the low price.

Regency Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Hung's and Gerrard Corner - Feb 2012

After describing Cantonese food in the UK as gloopy and ubiquitous I was expecting - and received - flack, agreement and recommendations in equal measure. The consensus on Twitter and elsewhere was, with the exception of dim sum specialists, broad agreement, with high end exceptions such as Hakkasan, China Tang and Pearl Liang. Mr Noodles, writer of the excellent Eat Noodles Love Noodles also threw Hung's and Baker Street's Phoenix Palace into the mix. While I can't quite bring myself to pay the prices commanded by Hakkasan and China Tang, I'll be giving Pearl Liang and Phoenix Palace a go soon.

With a front window full of hanging and marinading roasted meats, Hung's set their stall out early. It would have been churlish to ignore this carnivorous bounty and, being no churl, we went for a selection of char siu, the honeyed roast pork, along with crispy cubes of belly pork known as siu yuk. Neither was bad by any stretch of the imagination, but served simply on a bed of rice they came over either as underpowered or too subtle, depending how charitable you're feeling. Moist and well cooked, I just wanted more taste.

Flavourwise, things improved with a beef brisket hot pot. Big chunks of meltingly tender beef fell apart in a thick gravy of umami flavour. MSG enhanced? Almost certainly, the cloying afterburn of the flavour enhancer was unmistakable, but a perfect dish for a cold February night notwithstanding. Oddly, despite being a hot pot dish, it was obviously cooked in another dish and served in the clay pot as the outer container arrived stone cold, hastening the cooling down of the meat inside.

Not tried this time, but Mr Noodles also recommended the King Prawn Dumpling Noodles, something I'd be happy to come back for having seen them ordered and demolished by a tiny Chinese lady on the next table to us. The service is as perfunctory as you'd expect from a Chinatown joint and the decor is basic. I won't be making a beeline for Hung's in the near future, but what we had wasn't bad.

Gerrard Corner
While we're on the subject, I thought I'd mention another Chinatown institution that I've had some success with in the past. Like many along that strip, they tend to bulk out out mainstream standards with onions and overload on MSG, but if you choose right there are some goodies here. The roasted meats are good if not exceptional and their pork hotpot is a rich and worthy winter ribsticker, full of soft yielding aubergine and slippery pork slices flavoured with star anise punctuated with shards of garlic and chilli.

 Roast meats at Hung's
 View to the front, and the sui laap 
The pork and aubergine hot pot at Gerrard Corner

Hung's on Urbanspoon

Gerrard Corner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Hunan - a proper Chinese feast - Feb 2012

China's ascendancy as a global power over recent years has done much to force and foster understanding of a massively diverse culture. Western diners have realised that there isn't just 'Chinese' food, in the same way as there isn't just 'European' food. Across the continent, there are tens and hundreds of regional variations in cooking style and ingredients, these are often broken down into 8 or so key cuisines and those further categorised into four very broad and general groups; Northern (Lu or Shangdong), Southern (Cantonese predominently), Western (Sichuan and Hunan both fall here) and Eastern (Yang or Huiyang after one of the main regions).

The problem you have with trying to categorise such diverse cuisines together is that obviously, and wonderfully, they just don't want to fit into your neat boxes. I love the idea of the four cuisines on a stage like a boy band; Sichuan, as the 'kerazee' Robbie Williams is spicy, punky and unpredictable, Cantonese Gary Barlow, gloopy and ubiquitous, for many years the only one that you'd find anywhere. Prissy Mark might match Huiyang, meticulously turned out, perfectly prepared and delicately flavoured, leaving Jason or Howard to stand in for Shandong's background soups, seafoods and, um, harmonising melodies. 

Going by this broad categorisation, you might worry that setting up a Hunanese restaurant round here would be like throwing an ultra spicy tattooed powerhouse into the refined part of Pimlico that sits just off Sloane Square and forcing them to hang out with bankers, diplomats or the wives and mothers of such. It's not ideal. 

Thankfully the joys of a generalisation (and particularly of my very stretchy analogy) are that you have plenty of room to work. Hunanese food is not the same as Sichuan. Not close. Despite the categorisation, the spice, where it is used, comes from the vinegary sour of pickle and ferment and not the numbing heat of the pepper. This doesn't mean that it's not hot at times, but the gulf in style is substantial. 

As well as the differing cuisine styles, there is a different ethos to Chinese dining. In several of the cuisines, emphasis is given to the structure and composition of the meal you are eating. Individual dishes shared by the party might be individually underpowered to give harmonising notes or emphasise other elements of the dishes but by and large, you are tasting a whole orchestra, not eating a cellist. 

It's in this last that Hunan's individuality comes out. Many Chinese restaurants will offer a group set menu intended to give an array of flavours. Hunan has nothing but a set menu. You pays your money and the orchestra plays. Solicitous staff check that you're not allergic or alarmed by any of the ingredients in the menu and from there you have a two hour roll through 18 or so courses. As most were no more than a bite, this was nowhere near as much as it sounds. 

The problem for me is that nothing really stood out. I remember a couple of interesting dishes; a brown sauce soused beef tripe was uric and hearty, prawns, featured often, excelled when combined with a thick herby stuffing and crispy, salty, garlic and chilli green beans with a light tempura batter were excellent, a Dr Jekyll to its firey Sichuan brother. Other than those, I remember little, even on reviewing the menu two days later. I know what I ate was pleasant, we left nothing and murmured assent often, but the abiding memory was of background and filler. The orchestra were competent, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what the soloists were like.The staff were multitudinal and solicitous, the ground floor terraced room narrow and cozy and despite the toilet facilities being a little more Chinatown than Sloane Square it's difficult to pick holes with the set up. A good spot for a business dinner or lunch and a fairly good call for a classy date, just go for the light chamber orchestra and don't expect Robbie Williams to show up.

Further reading on Chinese cuisine:

Hunan on Urbanspoon

Another bite of Brixton Market - Feb 2012

As a little foodie cluster, Brixton Village has more than enough ethnic treats to satisfy even the most diverse of foodie. The main problem will be deciding what to go for. Personal highlights include the excellent Honest Burger, Franco Manca (the slew of other, newer openings have thankfully made seats here easier to come by) and Federation's excellent coffee. 

There's a pleasant mix developing between new and old Brixton. The newly opened food stalls complement the peacock finery of the African clothes stores and feel at home alongside the butchers and veg stalls elsewhere. A soundtrack of dub, reggae and itinerant street preacher permeates and there's thankfully little sign of the depressing corporate homogeneity that has neutered Spitalfields, Borough, Camden and the other markets. Brixton does it differently.

Mama Lam is another often mentioned treat, more an appeterif than a main meal, they do a selection of freshly made Chinese jiaozi or potsticker dumplings, a couple of other fried lovelies and intense, flavoursome noodle soups. The tiny outdoor tables are a trial in the winter so grab a place at the counter and watch their Chinese mama deftly roll and fill the little dough parcels, poached then crisped off over hot heat. Fillings include beef, pork and vegetables, five satisfying and fresh buns will set you back a few quid.

A rarer street food is served at Okan, big hearty pancakes from Osaka called Okonomiyaki. Hefty, hearty giant rosti cakes, made with a cabbage and noodle base held together with a sloppy batter, served with a variety of umami rich toppings and fillings. They taste better than they sound and the theatre of them being prepared on their sizzling short order grill is both evocative and famishing...

As well as the three or four places mentioned recently, there are a number of South American places I've subsequently noticed now on my list, a good looking Thai, jerk stalls (though I have my Peckham affinities here) and a selection of other bakeries, grills and goodies alongside non food related retailers old and new school. The continual evolution and ad hoc nature of the place will hopefully bring new places to the market to sink or swim based on satisfaction rather than longevity of lease or depth of corporate pocket.

The finished product

 Looking in at Mama Lam

And the resultant pot stickers

Mama Lan Supper Club on Urbanspoon
Okan Brixton Village on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Albion Cafe at the Boundary - Feb 2012

 After spending his career building up the chain of upmarket eponymous stores and restaurants that brought (relatively) affordable design to London, you'd forgive Sir Terence if he wanted to kick back in his favourite Eames lounge chair, puff on a trademark cigar and enjoy his retirement. The fact that he doesn't is testament to what must be an absurdly driven personality. This isn't someone you'd want to play Scrabble against. 

The Boundary feels like a successful attempt to present a flagship project exactly as he wants it with elements taken from across his varied career. It's a Victoria sandwich of a place featuring a swanky design hotel sandwiched between a lean cut basement restaurant and a rooftop bar cum BBQ, the latter ideal for Sir Tel's cheeky post dinner stogie. On the ground floor, tall post-industrial windows open onto the regenerated street scene (it's hard to be too edgy when you're opposite Shoreditch House) and there's a bakery, deli (with local goods for local people) and open plan kitchen with a diner. 
Come the zombie apocalypse, I'm barricading the windows and hunkering down here - assuming you can spot the difference early enough in the vacant asinine Sho'ho hipsters that crowd the streets outside.

The deli upfront is a twee affair, like a picture perfect village shop that's had a makeover from, well, someone like Sir Terrence Conran. Laid back brunch / lunch / dinner are all served in that ground floor diner. One recent visit delivered porridge with sticky damson jam from the deli, another gave me phenomenal bacon, served on thick slices of fresh white bloomer straight out of the twittering bread oven (follow @albionsoven if you want to know what's coming out next). The predictably golden yolked eggs that came perfectly poached with it were, less predictably, almost entirely tasteless however.

I like the Albion Cafe. It's got more than a whiff of pretentiousness, but does some good food, with a decent level of service and appears to know exactly what it is. Well worth popping in for breakfast or brunch if you're in the area.

Albion at The Boundary Project on Urbanspoon

Villagio in Hammersmith - Feb 2012

I'm not going to dwell here too long...

Italian restaurants in hotels are a bean counter's no brainer. That's why so many hotels around the world have them. The cuisine is widespread, recognised and inoffensive to everyone, easy to prepare and (if you scrimp on the ingredients and the time) easy to come out at a low bottom line cost. Unfortunately the difference between a good one and a poor one is all too evident, but not until the food lands in front of you.

Villagio, unfortunately positioned on the Hammersmith roundabout opposite the bus station has that suicidal Hilton airport hotel vibe down to a tee. We went with guests, travellers thankfully too jetlagged to notice what the hell they were eating.

The room has that large, cold, boomingly beige, parquet wood vibe known the world over to those who need to turn tables between breakfast, lunch and dinner with a minimum of fuss. From the glossy corporate menu to the service there's no love here.

The food isn't even Hilton. It's Holiday Inn at best. My guests 'Italian' burger was a room service disaster. A lukewarm granite puck slapped between anaemic re-baked on the premises focaccia. The fries were alright, like underseasoned refugees from the nearby bus station MacDonalds. Chicken al Fungi was little more than underheated and cheap ricotta studded with gray lumps of protein masquerading as mushroom. No doubt someone counted the lumps to make sure I didn't get more than my allotted share. I was glad, I couldn't cope with any more than my allotted share.

As well as Hammersmith, they also have branches Berkhamsted, Andover and Barnet... I may pass.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ducksoup in Soho - an austere winter warmer - Feb 2012

One of the joys of working in Soho was (sniff...) the proliferation of small but excellent reservation free eateries that, while rammed with the bridge and tunnel brigade on a weekend and late week evening, could be sampled with ease by the resident workers. If I hadn't spent most of my career to date (sniff sniff...) in the area I wouldn't have sampled the joys of Koya, Polpo, Moolis, Spuntino and others.

Just before I left for pastures suburban (well, Hammersmith anyway) Ducksoup opened. Rammed with rabid crowds of get there first reviewers for the first couple of weeks (yes regular readers, I am aware of the irony) I didn't manage to get past the door. The handful of wooden tables soon filled and a queue developed for seats at their long bar as the buzz spread.

Descriptions of their back to basics food are scrawled on a small handwritten daily changing menu that gets handed along the wood top counter, like receiving wafers from a priest. They don't try and turn water into wine though, the former arrives in earthenware jugs, the latter - seemingly with a preference for the natural and biodynamic - is detailed on a chalkboard beside the bar. There's the sense of a small Presbyterian chapel as you walk into the calm light space through casual blue drapes, though if churches were able to generate the bustle and hype of Ducksoup, Richard Dawkins would be fighting a losing battle.

It's not that dissimilar in style to St John, though without the obsession with offal. There's a fashionable austerity in the 14 or so small plates (£5-£7 each, you'll need 3 a head) which proudly celebrate cheaper cuts and left field ingredients like a teenage music fanboy demonstrating hipster credibility. "You've never heard of puntarelle? Wow. We've been working with it for years, getting bored with it now."

Hangar or skirt steak is another obvious example. The loose tasty fatty roll from the side needs to be slow cooked to tasty oblivion or, as here, flash charred on very high temp to deliver its bloody juices into a small pungent salad of the aforementioned puntarelle (a seasonal variety of chicory found only near Rome, quizhounds).

Elsewhere there are oft-forgotten leftovers from wealthier plates; duck legs confit, a big earthy terrine, pig cheeks and other rustic butchers cuts made good. Thankfully it is done well, there's a deftness of touch in the tiny kitchen. Grilled pecorino; rindy, nutty and salty, is a grown up halloumi here softened with honeycomb. I pass on glorious looking roast potatoes that come with a thick roast tomatoes and caper sauce (my kind of vegetarian side dish..) opting instead for a simple, refreshing blood orange, pine nut and fennel salad so good I can still taste if I think hard enough.

It's a world away from the well padded and ribald bonhomie of the Dean Street Townhouse opposite, and would be perfectly suited to an aesthete's second date rather than a good time gang up with friends. If you can get a table, or are willing to wait on the depressing Soho street for a seat at the bar then do, just make a back up plan for possible disappointment.

Ducksoup on Urbanspoon