Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Le Cafe Anglais - Mar 2012

There should probably be a snidey joke about eating in shopping centres somewhere here but Le Cafe Anglais is no food court cop out. Sure, it's occupied the top floor of handsome from the outside Whiteleys for five years now, but if the shopping centre trades on past glories Le Cafe Anglais resolutely doesn't.

If you'd been told that Capice Holdings or Corbin & King had a hand in the place you wouldn't be surprised (they haven't to the best of my knowledge) - it displays several hallmarks of a well designed, well run restaurant by their exacting rulebook. Attentive, individual staff; an eye for detail; simple tastes and flavours and great, great quality ingredients.

The food was simple and excellent. It breaks neither budget nor boundaries but delivers a solid performance for £30-£35 a head. From an expansive brasserie menu I went for plump, juicy if teeny tiny scallops followed by a simply grilled veal escalope. Good as it was to tuck into after a week of more challenging dining, i admit to slight food envy watching Dr Vole and the Northern Mother tuck into a perfect piece of muscly firm hake, served under a snappy salsa verde atop dense sticky lentils. Competence can be used as an indicator of the ordinary or prosaic, here it was sublime.

The dining room is grand. High windows open up the light flooding over chandeliers and sassy banquettes. Beautiful floral displays set off the crisp white linens and serried tableware. If I had to find fault here it couldn't be with the front of house look or the intelligent wait staff, though I whoever chose such an awful, artless Jackson Pollock for public transport carpet for the space needs their head examining.

Other than that godawful floor covering; if there's a fault, it can only be in the location. It's a shame someone as talented as Head Chef Rowley Leigh was forced to spend his time leaning next to the pass checking his phone and chatting to regulars rather than locked in the kitchen. Maybe the ladies who lunch do so during the week, but you won't find much better cooking at this price level and style within the area and it's a shame that on this Saturday lunch at least, it didn't have a more appreciative audience.

Le Cafe Anglais on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Tom Aikens at Somerset House - Fings ain't as bad as they used to be - Mar 2012

So a long time ago now, at least a yonk, if not two, I went to one of Tom Aikens' places. In fact, I went to THE Tom Aikens place. The one called Tom Aikens (as opposed to Tom's Kitchen, or Tom's Plaice or Tom's Terrace). In case you're not sensing the theme; the brand is all about Tom. Like a high end and less paunchy Jamie Oliver, or a much prettier Gordon Ramsay. 
Anyway, it was horrid. Tom Aikens that is. The restaurant, not the man. I was on a bad date and could barely afford to pay for half of the meal at those prices, and they are pricey prices - whilst also being in the company of an upwardly mobile wannabe Sloane desperately making eyes at investment bankers. I cried inwardly at my arts industry salary and looked daggers at the Charlies and the Henrys and the Hugos floating around the starchy dining room. None of us came out of it looking good. The food was forgettable: the sort of drawn out pale insignificance that makes you dread that this might be it for an inexperienced Michelin diner, like a schoolboy watching bad Shakespeare and dismissing the bard entirely.

But I digress. I didn't go to 'casual' offshoot Tom's Kitchen, nor to his shortlived fish restaurant, Tom's Plaice. The idea of travelling to the centre of Chelsea to eat overpriced fish and chips while watching the locals slum it didn't appeal. But I did go to Tom's Terrace, the Somerset House summer pop-up overlooking the National and the Southbank, where I experienced a huge wait for a pointlessly expensive sharing board of assorted sandwich fillers and promptly fucked off to Joe Allen for a burger.

Now all of this is a little unfair on Tom. He's certainly putting himself out there. He was the youngest British chef to win 2 Michelin stars and he does a whole host for charidee. I feel a little sad that his brand concepts have delivered two memorably disappointing dining experiences. So I went back. Well, I let myself be taken back, this time to Tom's Kitchen at Somerset House. Separate to the Terrace, it's a spare, almost monastic space, especially in the early spring weak lunchtime light. It's wealthy austerity, a "we're only casual dining, no silver service here so don't worry about the pricing" sense of scene. Wooden furniture is heavy and simple, the tables are unclothed. Reclaimed industrial lighting adds a glow to augment the large high windows. In short, it's nothing showy.

The food is good old comfort food, nothing more, nothing less. It's what the good folk of Chelsea like most about their version of the local cafe, and it's clearly aimed here at the ladies who lunch after a morning at the Courtauld. There's certainly nothing here that'll scare them. Mussels, crab cakes, chicken liver parfait and soup of the day to start. Steaks, grilled fish and calf liver for mains - It's a menu befitting an upperclass hotel dining room from the 1950's. My guest went for the cured salmon and a thick juicy ribeye. £28 for a 10oz serving isn't the greatest deal in town, though it was seemingly well enough cooked.

I went for the soup of the day, a creamy butternut squash number and have to say that I can still taste it: rich, buttery and sweet, perfectly seasoned and with the tiniest spike of chilli, like liquid sunshine. That was followed with the beer-battered fish and chips. Haddock I think. Though our server didn't know, which you should, you really should, especially for £17 a (small) portion. It wasn't a patch on cabbie's favourite, Masters Superfish, just over the bridge on Waterloo Road. But you don't take captains of industry there, unless they really want to go. 

So it isn't the cheapest of spots. And the menu won't set you on fire with its innovation. But if you're in Somerset House on a midweek lunchtime, that's probably not what you're looking for. It's certainly pricier than it needs to be for the quality and the service, but of the three Tom's, this was was by far my favourite.


Tom's Kitchen at Somerset House on Urbanspoon

48 hours in Beirut

Here's a piece I wrote for one of the boutique hotel websites around a business trip I was taking to Beirut. My first paid bit of writing as it goes! It's not really in the same style as the restaurant pieces, but I thought it'd be worth posting to get people's thoughts... Don't worry though, it's still as smug, overblown and self aggrandising as usual, I just used slightly smaller words cos I was writing for the transatlantic market... ;-)

48 Hours in Beirut 

Beirut is an approachable, accessible jewel box of a city these days. It's said, mainly by the smug locals, that if you can't find your niche here, then it doesn't exist... There's a wonderful combination of French chic and Arabic hospitality, and despite the sometimes shocking state of the infrastructure, there's currently a real sense of purpose about this often-overlooked city.

I was lucky enough to spend just over 48 hours in Beirut, and I already know I'll be back. The city has a late-night partying culture, so you may spend most mornings here recovering from the night before. Shopping, however, is also a major attraction. After a savoury pastry and a coffee from one of the many vendors that line the often chaotic streets, I hit the relatively new Beirut Souk (with its big brand designer labels) and Saif Village (for smaller, local designers) in Downtown for some sophisticated retail therapy.

For lunch, I headed over to Indigo at the Le Gray hotel, nestled between the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the shopping district. A perfect mix of new and old, sandstone and marble merge with glass and steel to slot Le Gray into its surroundings. The views from the rooftop restaurant stun international visitors and the local business crowd alike. Try and get one of the tables overlooking the Mosque if you can.

A large portion of fresh calamari came grilled with artichoke and new potatoes, smokily satisfying with a hint of saline from the preserved lemon and caper dressing. The wine, Lebanese of course, was a crisp and minerally Aixir. It was a perfect accompaniment to the calamari, singing with notes of Voignier, Muscat and Semillion.

The well-drilled brigade in the open kitchen specialise in beef: Australian grain-fed Angus from Dimantina in Stanbrokes, to be exact. On recommendation I rooted for the large rib-eye (the Lebanese may do mezze, but they suffer no small plates), served with rich gratinated potatoes, though they also stock buttery, marbled Wagyu from the same source. Defeated by the steak, I was forced to pass on the delicious-looking desserts and retire to the cigar lounge for a digestif of fresh mint tea.

The bar scene ebbs and flows swiftly in Beirut, with new openings every week. Gemmayze Street in the East, and Hamra Street in Muslim West Beirut have been the real hubs of activity in recent years. For chic international drinking, stick to the hotels (the sumptuous red velvet space at the Four Seasons has to be seen, particularly during colder winter months), but for buzzy bars and clubs, you can't go wrong with Gemmayze Street.

After a wash and brush-up (necessary in notoriously chic Beirut) I started early with some local friends at Dragonfly, one of the many dark, narrow bars on Gemmayze serving excellent cocktails you'll find within five minutes walk of Le Grey. Check for their changing special cocktail, this week a Continental twist on a Whisky Sour, topped with the excellent local red wine, too good to waste on a cocktail according to my Lebanese host!

Whatever you do, don't leave without sampling some of the local wines. Fruitful reds come with Syrah notes while clean fragrant whites often blend Viognier and local grapes such as Clarette and Aubaidi. Ksara and Kefreya are good names to look out for, but if you get stuck, then pop into Le Gray and ask for a lesson from the enthusiastic sommelier.

Dinner that night was at the Albergo, just up the hill on the outskirts of Downtown, and playfully designed with a local twist on layers of gilded French opulence. Muted by the padded furniture, there is a constant murmur of multilingual conversation from smartly dressed local crowd who triple kiss and parlay in the comfortable rooftop Italian restaurant.

We shared hot, fresh breads, a pitch-perfect grilled halloumi and pomegranate salad, and the signature Albergo salad. The latter is a mix of creamy local Akawii cheese, marinated to reduce its salty tang, with morsels of chicken and beetroot on mixed leaves. This was followed by slabs of tender veal with green beans and buttery mash, barely leaving room for the dessert recommended by our friendly Maitre D': a cryptically named Phoenician Delight. This local rosewater ice cream, studded with homemade Turkish Delight and served on a biscuit base, was the perfect end to a sumptuous repast.

Rolling back towards Gemmayze Street, we found another proliferation of bars and clubs on Monot Street, a cobbled pedestrian courtyard. Western Europeans will be happy with the home-from-home brown bar Hole in the Wall, while we chose to linger over the delightful daiquiris at Leb-Mex fixture Pacifico. Make sure you head to the unmarked metal door at the back of Rococo opposite, though: it opens on a comfortable speakeasy with live music most evenings. Locals tend to eat after 9 (or at home with friends and family) and chat over turkish coffee before hitting the bars, so it doesn't get lively till late, and most places will still be going well after 3am.

Not mentioned, but recommended by locals and expats:

  • Rare - Steak restaurant in the Embassy district 
  • Al Balad - Classic Lebanese near the Souks 
  • Sophie's Choice - Coffee shop, patisserie and clothes boutique in the Souks 
  • Goutous Voir - French bistro near Albergo 
  • Domain des Tourelles - Wineshop specialising in Lebanese wines just off Monot Street 
  • La Tabkha - Homemade Lebanese comfort food on Gemmayze Street 
  • Little China - The best Chinese (Contonese) restaurant in Beirut (arguably of a very small bunch) 
  • Freida - mid budget Mexican inspired mezzo near the Albergo 
  • La Posta - High end Italian restaurant popular with the diplomatic community

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Arbutus - The opposite of pop up - Mar 2012

With the current craze being for reservation free dining, unless you're actively surfing ahead of that zeitgeist or are prepared to huddle in the cold for 45 minutes minimum even for a table at 7, you'll be left wistfully wishing you'd got 'it' before Twitter did. New dining is about social support networks, and by the time you read about it in the old media, it's probably already jumped the shark.

Thankfully you don't have to try and corral your less cool friends into the latest reservation free pop up as the plethora of these has thankfully given you an excuse to revisit slightly quieter options that don't feature on the Twits radar.

Arbutus is one of these. Just off Soho Square, it's a clean contemporary dining room serving clean and contemporary seasonal Modern European food. They specialise in some of the biggest of flavours, put together with the lightest of touches. I start with a contender for best starter of the last few years; squid and mackrel 'burger'. Infinitely better than it sounds, it's an absolutely joyous hockey puck of freshest seafood that absolutely hits the back of the net for me and my Cordon Bleu trained dining guest.

If you prefer dining out to involve a bit more effort on the part of the chef than just piling good ingredients on a plate then you'll be pleased. There's a real sense of craft demonstrated here that stops short of showing off.

Chef Demetre delights in multiple incarnations of ingredients in each dish, in this case rabbit for Cordon Bleu and tripe for me. To be honest, the portion sizes got a bit messy. I know offal is cheap but I literally have four large plates to plough through. Slow cooked as an enormous cassoulet on the side is marvellous melting and soft. Topped with crisp parsley crumb, a distinctive uric tang rises with the steam. It's not that, but the portion size that defeats me in the end.

Less successful is the small plate of slightly soft chewy crackling served alongside. It's a fatty afterthought that doesn't add much to the meal and is mostly ignored. The main dish was a Marsailles style rustic dish known as Pieds-Paquets, tripe stuffed with chopped ham, garlic and herbs, rolled into little parcels and simmered for 6-7 hours. Just when I thought I was done, a final meaty flourish gave me a toast topper of fine chopped garlicky tripe. Superb, but I had meat coming out of my ears.

By contrast Cordon Bleu's shoulder pie and saddle of rabbit were positively Lilliputian. They seemed to go down well, he was scraping the tiny Staubb receptacle clean while I was still ploughing gamely on. It's a good thing he talks more than I do...

Their set lunch is one of the best business dining options in Soho and at £50 a head including a decent bottle of something ertzatz and Italian, dinner doesn't need to break the bank. In a pleasantly surprising touch, a cheaper bottle is recommended when our first choice isn't available, I only wish more restaurants would dare to do this. Another nice touch at the three restaurants in the group is the vast number of wines available by the carafe.

Arbutus may not have the blistering white hot buzz of nearby transient neighbours, but it sure as hell competes on quality. Take advantage of the fact that everyone is currently queuing outside somewhere else.

Arbutus on Urbanspoonon.com/b/link/560500/biglink.gif" style="border:none;width:200px;height:146px" />

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Karpo - A split personality in King's Cross... Mar 2012

Places like this are a gift to write about, if not necessarily one to share... Karpo is truly a bizarre little (big) place. 

If one were crazy enough to open a restaurant in London then it's fair to say that King's Cross wouldn't be the obvious place for i unless you were intent on proving your craziness to all and sundry. Despite the money being pumped into the area, it's going to be a while before anybody in their right mind heads there for anything other than the train station.

That being said, if you are going to open a new resto, it's important to stand out from the crowd. And one way to stand out, when you're surrounded by a million and one single item places around serving only burgers or only fried chicken or only subs or only sarnies, is to make sure you serve absolutely eeeeverything...

After some excellent lemon soused pickled veg and moreish (if teetotal) bourbon pecan nuts we greedily attacked the menu. There's a lot I like the look of, but very little that readily goes together as a meal. From an overly diverse selection of hot and cold starters we travelled from Britain to Finland via the Deep South. With the exception of an over plasticised Lobster Mac 'n' cheese, the other plates worked well, if not necessarily together. Southern Fried Quail was finger lickin' excellent, the oft dry bird protected and gamey flavours enhanced by a spicy, crispy crumb. Scandinavian style eel on a dark nutty rye was a silkily simple morsel perfectly executed as was a firm and rich British classic of brawn on toast.

I'd tried to match the Southern theme with a main of 'Shrimp and Grits'. Pleasant enough, it just wasn't as I'd expected. Traditionally served as a slightly looser mixture, the corn grits were here more like a firm toasted polenta cake, topped with four or five big plump shrimps and doused in a rich salty gravy. Not actively unpleasant, but neither was it entirely satisfying. The polenta came hotter than the sun, an unwelcome plating error. Other mains veered from Asian influenced fish, via Moroccan chicken through to North European potato pancakes. As I say, none of us had a bad meal, there just wasn't a central concept to hang it off.

Like the food, there's definitely a deal of thought gone into the design of the place, though it tries to be as all encompassing as the menu. The interior designer must have had an awfully challenging time. You can imagine the conversation over the mood boards. "Ok, I'm not sure on the menu concept, it looks like you're trying to offer a little bit of everything, which is great, so we could take the design from any number of these five different styles, which do you prefer?". "All of them... Let's have all of them. At the same time..."

There's Lower East Side concrete chic into Scandi furniture and an eco/sustainable herb wall, a British member's bar downstairs next door to a Hard Rock styled section with plectrum tables and wall mounted guitars and that's without mentioning the black, red and gold blinged bathroom suitable for an oligarch. Enough already, just don't come here with a headache...

Quirks also exist at the similarly schizophrenic Bob Bob Ricard, but there the design pulls it together perfectly and while the menu moves around, there's plenty you can make a great meal from. 

Neither Karpo's menu or decor really seem to know what they're trying to achieve currently, and to be honest neither do we, which is a shame, as there's definitely talent in the open plan galley kitchen at the back, focused too widely on an extensive range of disparate dishes. It's a pleasant enough meal, made good by excellent company, but there isn't anything else that'll drag me back here and I couldn't begin to describe it well enough to send anyone else.

Karpo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Auspicious returns part 1 - Sunday lunch at the Dean Street Townhouse - Mar 2012

I've been back to the Dean Street Townhouse a number of times in the past year since my last review and haven't had a bad meal yet. A number of key staff have decamped to 34 Grosvenor, but those that remain firmly epitomise the individuality and attention to detail you expect from Caprice Holdings and Soho House. The menu has had a few tweaks over time, but it still specialises in unpretentious British comfort food served in comfortable surroundings. 

One thing I haven't done however is head down there for a Sunday lunch. At least until last weekend, when a group of us were chivvied to brush our faces and arrive broadly on time (after me the next arrival was 20 minutes after the table time, with the last person getting there over an hour and a half later - we have a flexible attitude to timekeeping..) 

I don't think I've enjoyed a meal more in years. Yes, it was the getting together with a great group of friends, an enjoyable experience whether you're in the DST or the Scunthorpe branch of a Harvester, but the location really created the occasion. There's nowhere better I've found in central London for generating an appropriately louche atmosphere appropriate to a boozy blow-out on a Sunday.

We all waded into the Sunday special Bloody Mary menu, four different twists on the classic cocktail including an spicy number cut with Scotch Bonnet peppers and a 'Hair of the Dog' with mustard and horseradish. It's a 'fuck you' take on the weekend mimosa menu you see at Soho House New York, and the perfect starter after a big night out.

Eschewing the lighter starters on the set lunch menu, I dived into a haddock souffle from the a la carte, velvety rich and as comforting as a boarding school matron's bosom. It was served with a parsley sauce drizzled from a copper pan by a man whose sideboards would have him thrown out of stuffier establishments. I regretted my excessive starter as soon as the plates of Hereford beef hoved into view. Yorkshire puddings the size of planets sat atop two thick slabs of perfectly pink prime rib roast. Sides were shared, sparingly, and for the next 20 minutes there was virtually no conversation as we attempted to make a dent in our plates. The cauliflower cheese on its own isn't as good as you get at Hawksmoor, but it's an admirable foil to the beef. There are greens, and honey-cooked veggies, and roasted potatoes and... in short, you'll struggle. I struggled and I'm a semi-pro. You probably need training first.

Beef juices leaking out of our every pore, not one of us could cope with desserts, though matron would surely have tried to force a spotted dick on us if she could. Coffee and we were done, blinking into the thin spring sunlight, incapable of eating for the rest of the day. They've still got it you know...

Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon

Leong's Legend - A more than average Chinatown experience - Mar 2012

Whatever you do, don't turn up to Taiwanese institution Leong's Legend without all your party present... I'd have had a better reaction standing outside a school offering peeks at my etchings than having the temerity to arrive friendless at Leongs. On learning that my guest was running late I was made to stand on the staircase, like a chubby schoolboy waiting to see the headmaster, until she arrived. It may have slightly classier decor than other Chinatown joints but the welcome and service are reassuringly brusque. 

We were there on recommendation for the weekend dim sum menu, in case you hadn't noticed, I've become slightly obsessed by the dainty Oriental tapas of late. Once I'd persuaded them that I did have someone joining me and wasn't some sort of solo dining restaurant pest, I took advantage of my guest's tardiness and got my ordering on. She arrived as the food did (or possibly the other way round), my social pariah status at an end. At an average of £3-4 a plate, £25 will more than cover two hungry souls.

It was all fresh and seemingly home made, standout were their siu leung bau, or soup dumplings, steamed purses filled with piquant broth and a hunk of garlicky pork mince. There's nothing finer than taking one of these bad boys onto your spoon, biting the tip off and sucking the fresh hot salty liquor out. At £5.50 for eight pieces, they're also very, very good value and an acceptable lunch in their own right. The char sui bau are also excellent versions of the pillowy soft steamed BBQ buns filled with anunctuous porky sauce. We worked our way through a number of other steamed options and a portion of fresh turnip puffs. If I had one, tiny, criticism it would be that the noodle wrapper on the cheung fun was too thick and chewy but that's the only thing I could score them down for.

The menu goes wider than dim sum, and once you've got past the front door it's cleaner and friendlier than a number of other places along the strip. You wouldn't have a problem bringing clients or parents here and for a weekend lunch service without the frenetic trolley action of New World I'd be happy to recommend Leongs. I'll definitely be back, just as soon as I can get my friends to arrive on time.


Leong’s Legends on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Auspicious returns part 2 - Angels and Gypsies - Mar 2012

Angels and Gypsies
A good quality authentic tapas bar within olive-pip-spitting distance of my house and across the road from my local pub: I should be the definition of a regular visitor. I've tried to like it a few times, but unless dragged there at someone else's behest, the condescending front of house staff have caused me to give it a miss since it opened eighteen months ago.

Gritting my teeth (and pressuring Dr Vole to book) we decided to give it a try on a Friday night and I was pleasantly surprised. The service has definitely improved, they're warm and friendly even when rushed. The food is still pretty solid too.

55-day-aged Longhorn rump steak comes covering lusciously thick and meaty black beans, still a standout, though at over £9 for 4 small pieces of rump it should be. Potatas Poble are thin fried crisps cut through with garlic, annoyingly overpowering raw rosemary and piquant peppers. The rabbit was a fairly bland cut of normally flavoursome meat, saved by tangy well-stewed chickpeas alongside.

It's good enough to tempt dubious friends to Camberwell, but doesn't quite warrant the price. If I'm not having to pay a premium for the location, at £40 a head I expect bloody good to be bloody excellent.

Angels and Gypsies on Urbanspoon

Carluccios - an overpriced, soulless moneymaker - Mar 2012

Snob that I am, I've been guilty in the past of dismissing the Carluccios chain restaurants as overpriced delis with cafe tables. The one in Oxford Circus used to be a default working overflow when we ran out of meeting rooms and we'd occasionally pick up croissants and expensive but good coffees as a treat on a dull or hungover morning.. Spending Friday night in one has never been something I'd think of, much less look forward to.

Wandering into the Richmond branch at the end of a busy week to meet up with friends didn't tick many boxes. I'd have been happier with a curry at home, a little bistro or, frankly anything else than a bowl of overpriced, mass produced pasta among the young daters an the elderly middleclass they would inevitably morph into. As I say, I'm a snob.

Closer consideration of the menu gave me some hope. There are a range of pastas to follow a good choice of starters taken from around Italy and a relatively uncomplicated fish and grill section if you're trying to avoid carbs. No pizzas feature.

The ingredients were reasonable, the pasta and gnocci fresh and perfectly cooked. My sauce, a venison ragu, was a meagre portion slopped on and rolled in the pan to give some    coverage, the bulk of the slightly dry meat managed to cling together, fearful of separation. Shared starters were assembled from good ingredients, all available to buy from the deli counter alongside and not really worth much more discussion. 

The service was abrupt and desultory in places, amateurish but friendly in others, the furniture 'wipe while you're sitting' cafe style. While I couldn't say anything actively bad about it, I couldn't say anything particularly good either and with prices equivalent to some of the better mid range Italians in town (certainly comparable to Zucca, Trullo and Mele e Pele) it just doesn't stack up for me. Somewhere to go when you run out of meeting room space, or a fallback mid session, but definitely not somewhere I'd plan to go again.


Carluccio's on Urbanspoon