Saturday, 28 April 2012

Ceviche - Second time lucky - Apr 2012

We weren't too successful the first time we attempted Ceviche. A 60 minute wait for our reservation went seemingly unacknowledged in the tiny, packed galley bar at the front of the restaurant and we ate elsewhere, grumpily and late. 

I've got to say though, upon being told of the extent of the delay and the effect it'd had on a long anticipated night out with friends, ├╝ber amiable host Martin rolled out the red carpet, inviting us back for a return visit on him. True to his word, from welcome to the goodbye we were thoroughly wined, dined and damn near 69'ed. I do love the VIP touch, though it's a shame to only get it when you kick up a stink. The food thankfully, after the hype and the wait, broadly lived up to our heightened expectations..

3 to 4 dishes per person, tapas style, is the recommendation. On that basis you could just get out on about £30 a head without booze. Not bad value for the quality and quantity, but it's not a cheap night out either. The food arrives as it's cooked, in fits, spurts and starts. Such wanton disregard to timing is expected when you're sharing, but it's definitely an experience that's best enjoyed with close friends. You'll need to be close to hear over the din too, it's dark, close and shouty in here.

We took advice on the menu, pulling a selection from each section. Ceviche, the house hit, is a bit of a one note wonder to me. Slivers of seabass swim in a feisty lime and chilli marinade, silken in texture and fresh as hell. As well as this, we go for a mixed seafood plate, sadly this one is a little too similar and I think we'd had our fill by the time it turned up. It was certainly slower than the first to disappear.

The other major food group here is the selection of anticuchos or grilled skewers of varying sorts. Not recognising most of the things they've been marinaded or basted with, we chanced a selection. Beef rump and heart came doused in aji panca chilli sauce, which turned out to be a mild tingling piquancy rather than anything too robust. The best of these served big chunks of salmon doused in a rocoto sauce. For those uninitiated into the world of the chilli, the rocoto also goes by the amusing name of Capsicum Pubescens, a hairy leaved little heatbomb from the west coast of South America. Botany lesson aside, it gave the blackened fish a wonderful smoothly smokey flavour and transforms a prosaic piece of fish into something quite, quite special.

The killer dish for me was a Lomo Saltado, wokfried striploin of beef served with onion and pepper. Sweet and moreishly powerful, you could have told me halfway through that I was eating slow cooked child and I'd have still carried on.

Unlike last time, half the group were steering clear of the booze for reasons transportational and so only Dr Vole and I were able to enjoy Pisco Sours so moreish they had more than a touch of the Columbian about them.

In an ideal world, Ceviche would be a perfect spot for a post work cocktail, washing down a plate of cold fresh seabass and a skewer or two at the bar. Sadly, and subjectively, it's way too busy for that to feel like an option yet, but it delivers further compelling evidence that the independent start up restaurant scene in London continues to thrive.

Where: Ceviche, Frith Street (

Ceviche on Urbanspoon

Friday, 27 April 2012

Ittenbari - chicken soup for the Japanese soul - Apr 2012

There were a good mix of Japanese and European faces filling the utilitarian tables and the queues outside as we left were as long as those outside previous noodle-magnet Koya. With plenty of spaces in the noodle bars next door and around 'little Japan' it would appear that somehow this new Brewer Street addition is engendering the same fanaticism that Koya manages. So what is it with this noodley obsession in London, and what is it specifically with Ittenbari?

Ramen is like chicken soup for the Japanese soul. A big bowl of steaming handmade noodles lurk like deep sea cables in a fragrant pool of umami rich seaspiced broth ripe with veg, pork and a perfectly cooked egg. Simple, egalitarian and delicious. This is the food of Gods, and a workday lunch for most of Japan, the lucky bastards.

Despite the posters announcing a new opening, it doesn't look like they've decorated in years. The grafitti on the back of the loo door is historic and the decor chipped. What is new it would seem is the ownership. It's now the London outpost of a renowned Osakan institution, imagine the frenetic foodie buzz if Russell Norman opened Polpo Tokyo and you might come close.

It's difficult and naive for this knowless gaijin to pass judgement on the actual noodles. I'll let the photo of the crowds streaming down the street at the lunch service do that. Was it the finest lunch i've had in my life? No, but it genuinely came close... As a fulfilling, tasty meal, I can safely say that it's hard to beat.

Ittenbari Ramen Restauant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A review of Railway themed Bangalore Express - Apr 2012

A railway themed curry house right next door to a major train terminus. What could be right about that sentence?

Compared to some of the Indian railway cafe themed establishments such as Dishoom and Roti Chai that have sprung up since Bangalore opened, the decor could only politely be described as lacking somewhat. Double decked railway carriage dining built into the wall and accessed by bunkbed steps might appeal to teens but it's not in itself a reason for the rest of us to stop by, especially in somewhere as well stocked with restaurants as Waterloo. 

Initial signs aren't good. We're jammed in behind the waiters station, the table cleared as we sit. While the dips that come with a basket of poppodoms are interestingly different (though not close to the South Indian delights of Ganapati), with beetroot chutney and a raw garlic number, they're preprepared and look like they've been around for a while.

The main menu is all kinds of confused. While a range of starters will be familiar enough to most people, the mains fall into two broad swathes. Half span different curry cuisines from around the world, covering African, South East Asian and the Indian subcontinent. The 'curry house' korma and vindaloo that your middle aged British parents would be looking for are served in a pick your meat n mix your curry sauce section at the bottom. It seems an odd thing to advertise, given that many cheaper quality establishments prepare vats of generic sauces and add meat on demand, losing the flavours and tenderness that often come from the cooking process but saving cost and waste.

And the food? While I don't think I'd make a deliberate trip back, it definitely wasn't the worst curry I've had, damning it with faint praise... We shared a hot and sour prawn curry from South India, a nicely balanced bowl of earthy, peppery black dhal and some manner of cold sweet potato salad. All pleasant enough but nothing more than the sort of weeknight standby served up by competent home chefs with a rudimentary grasp of spicing. Not the end of the world, but not what you want to be paying £20 odd a head for. 


Bangalore Express on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How to burger up lunch - The Angel and Crown - Apr 2012

Like a sad bottomy fart, my expectations slowly exhaled as I had it proved to me again why lunch can all to often be a gastronomic graveyard if you pick restaurants incorrectly. And, like the elegant cougar from the night before revealed in the cold harsh spring sunshine, there are just some places that obviously don't deliver in the daylight. 

Owned by the group behind a range of solid enough gastropubs with reasonable reputations elsewhere in the capital, I can only assume that the Chef, the manager and indeed everyone bar the kitchen porter of the Angel and Crown were on a group bonding session somewhere a long, long way away when I popped in on a Tuesday lunchtime.

Just across from the Noel Coward on St Martin's Lane is prime tourist territory and no doubt teeth clenchingly high rent, but neither are reason for the proprietors of recently refurbished pub dining room to charge me £13 for one of the most depressing burgers I've eaten in a long time. Described as a 'Dexter beef burger', it was a woeful embarrasment of a meal and the sort of bovine abuse you'd expect from an Aberdeen Angus, Garfunkels or Scotch Steakhouse.

My friend Simon is the rightfully proud owner of the world's smallest Dexter beef herd, having two of the little blighters. The oldest, named charmingly by his carnivorous kiddies as Burger, deserves a better end than the poor Dexter that had contributed to the grim patty on my plate. I have a feeling Simon would rather set them free to take their own chances than let them turn up like this.

Requested medium rare, it trickled pale juice but consisted of gray meat throughout with no char, sweetness or indeed real taste. The dense clag of over handled preparation made the thick single note mortuary slab a trial to eat. It lingered thankfully little on the palate but squatted in my gut for the remainder of the day like an ill mannered toad at the bottom of a pond.

The roll felt either frozen or forgotten, either way brittle, hard and inedible, crumbling by the wayside. The chips had a whiff of the Maccy D's about them and came served with two wafer thin slices of gherkin and a tasteless watery beef tomato slice.

I'm not going to bother describing the standard decor of the empty upstairs dining room or the amiable staff, both were fine. I just want to tell my salutary patty based tale and get this memory over and done, consigning it to the bin of disappointment in the depths of my cerebellum, pulling it out dustily if anyone suggests trying this place.   


Angel & Crown on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Imperial China and Pearl Liang - Apr 2012

Or, on accidentally ending up eating Chinese food...

Imperial China
After a clusterfuck of bad service from spot du jour Ceviche (a 50 minute wait despite having a reservation), our party of brave (but hungry) souls stormed out into the night and headed towards Chinatown. It wasn't a time for picking another new option, and I was in the bad books after dragging them to Ceviche in the first place, so we ended up in the late night default of our guests, the International Travellers, Lisle Street's Imperial China.

I've eaten there before, several times with the International Travellers after one or three post work beers and it's always been, well, fine. It's not the cheapest option, they do pretty reasonable dim sum too (not to my mind anywhere as good as Yauacha, or as cheap and joyful as New World or Dragon Castle), and their meats have always done the job (albeit without filling my soul with any real joy). It's a big old place, a little prettier than some of its near neighbours and accessed over a tiny bridge past a concrete carp pool, just for a welcoming touch of clarse...

I think as I've been eating a fairly substantial amount of Chinese cuisine recently, my palate has improved slightly. There is some argument as to what counts as 'true' Peking Duck. My belief has always been that this is what you get when the bird has been cooked, marinaded and airdried (as you'll see in Chinatown windows). With the skin separated from the rendered fat and crisped up to a shiny, dark, plum coloured top sheet, it's eaten first with a dipping sauce before the remaining sliced meat is wrapped in tiny pancakes with onion and plum sauce. I'd contrast that with aromatic crispy duck (the type you tend to get in most Chinese takeaways) which tends to give you an oven cooked duck where meat, fat and skin are broken up roughly with forks and served together in those pancakes.

No garlic dipping sauce for the skin as you sometimes get with Peking Duck, just packaged pancakes and the usual hoisin, but I was impressed by the duck itself, with its soft fatty flesh perfect underneath shards of crisped marinaded skin.

Of the other dishes, shared BBQ pork was a touch too sweet and so juicy as to feel faked, crispy beef was similarly sweet, albeit with a good chilli kick, but neither would bring me back. There were some perfectly acceptable noodles and an excellent aubergine hotpot that probably would have me here again to finish.

With a couple of beers and a few starters, we were looking at £35 a head. Not bad for what we'd had, but you can do cheaper and better round here.

 Pearl Liang
Likewise an impulse purchase.. Pearl Liang used to be very close to my office and was a great spot for payday dim sum. As I still do some work with them I often find myself nearby, seldom sadly at mealtimes. Going back to visit The Insider for a post work meeting that segued into beers that morphed into a strong desire for something to fill our stomachs seemed like an ideal opportunity and so we snagged a table in the windowless space. It was surprisingly busy given its soulless office complex location in Paddington's mini Canary Wharf, Sheldon Square.

Arriving after 9, even on a near weekend evening, may not have been wise. The service was abrupt, a little distracted (we ordered a second beer and they brought and served us an entirely different brand) and they were keen to chivvy towards the end. A party arriving later than us were asked for their dessert and coffee orders even as their main courses were coming out. I can understand the logic within licencing laws, but wasn't aware that it was illegal to serve coffee and ice cream after 11.

We weren't really there for a long digestion of the menu and went for one of the set choice menus, given what I've heard about the usually high quality here that may have been a mistake. The selection of starters was a promising mix of mainly fried and breaded items. The squid fared particularly well, and a plump prawn encased in crisp dry noodles was similarly toothsome, though I had to leave most of my large Vietnamese style spring roll, filled with glassy noodles (and little else) before being deepfried. The one I had seemed to return most of the contents of the frier, disgorging oily liquid as I bit into it. A slug of Tsing Tao was needed to wash the taste away and the rest of the roll remained on the plate, avoided by me and uncommented on by the staff.

Aromatic, rather than crispy, duck followed, with the delightful addition of homemade pancakes. In the same way as you will with fresh, homemade pasta, we really noticed the difference.

We finished with four sharing bowls of varying quality. Mixed vegetables were barely cooked in a lightly spiced silken sauce, fine for snappy beans, less appetising for the large chunks of raw mushroom. mixed seafood in XO sauce was perfectly acceptable and packed with creamy chunks of scallop and squid but like the beef in oyster sauce was over salty for my palate. Admittedly the biggest saline hit came from a dry fried chicken with chilli that, while hugely moreish, seemed more like bar counter subterfuge, an attempt to get us to keep ordering lagers (if we hadn't hit last orders mid way through the mains that is...)

Overall, I wasn't hugely impressed, I've had better Cantonese food than this, but I've also had better here. I don't think we got the best of the kitchen on this visit.

 The delightfully sticky and unctuous aubergine hotpot at Imperial

BBQ pork at Imperial

I try and avoid taking the piss out of Chinglish on menus 
but this one at Pearl Liang really made me giggle 

 The starter platter at Pearl Liang

The spicy chicken - hot and fun but way too salty

Imperial China on Urbanspoon

Pearl Liang on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Hup! Hup! Holland! - Apr 2012

So what do you know about the writer of this blog? Other than the fact I eat out more than I should? Well I've proved that I'm ready and willing to make crass generalisations to fit a tortuous analogy, I patronisingly avoid anything that could be construed as populist or mainstream while overanalysing and overplanning in order to fit food around most everything I do. Most of the time...
Those of you who recognise this would therefore have been slightly surprised to see me and the long suffering Dr Vole tramping round the backstreets of Amsterdam's tourist heart desperately searching for something to eat. God knows what had happened but we had no plans made, no achingly cool destination restaurant in mind and not even a concept of what constituted 'authentic' Dutch food.

We didn't eat particularly well in Amsterdam. Not because it's impossible to do so, though even fanatical locals recognise it's not easy, mainly because we took little advice, did little research and remembered even less of either... On the upside, our weekend trip didn't feel like a long meal punctuated by the occasional walk. It certainly wasn't a loss as we wandered alongside picturesque canals, stopped off in little bars and grazed on books, bieres and bitteballen.

On the downside, we spent our second night in a touristic pub attempting to choose between more of those ubiquitous bitteballen (small balls of curried mashed potato - eaten, regurgitated and deepfried) and plates of florescent nachos before giving up and getting stocious instead, ending up on a bar hop round De Pjip, the Dutch version of Shoreditch (much cleaner, with less drugs and skinny jeans, though still an annoying propensity for bad facial hair and bad 80's music). This culminated in a heavenly cone of patatje oorlog, or 'war chips', fries slathered in satay, mayonnaise and raw onion. Admittedly it's better than it sounds, and almost certainly improved by too many vaasje's of local beer.

 So what can I tell you if you're going there to eat? Not much of use I'm afraid. The usual city rules apply. Anything within two blocks of a tourist attraction and you're going to struggle, anywhere with a 'menu tourist' outside and you deserve what you get. There were some nice looking places along Ferdinand Bolstraat and round the periphery of the nearby Sarphatipark in De Pjip. It's not too touristy round there, and is only a few stops from central Amsterdam. There are a few places that obviously feature in the Time Out guide, Kingfisher particularly was full of Brits, but like the rest of the street felt friendly, down to earth and comfortable. If you're there during the day then there's yet more fried to be had along the Albert Cuyp Markt, it's more Brixton than Portobello Road but interesting enough. There's also a slightly more food focussed market in the Jordaan surrounded by slightly more genteel streets of chocolate box architecture and little brown bars.

It's a beautiful city, and one I'll definitely go back to, if not necessarily for the food...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Pizarro, two cheers for Jose - Apr 2012

I dunno, you wait for London's tapas king to open one new restaurant, and two come along at almost the same time... No one was at all surprised when Jose Pizarro of Brindesa fame opened up jewel box perfect Jose on Bermondsey Street a year or so ago, there was a little more surprise when it was followed up less than a year later by bigger brother Pizarro a few doors down.

If the impression is that these are a couple of places he's thrown together, then it works. Jose is a absolute favourite for post work sherry and a pincho from the authentic little bar cum kitchen in the tiny space. I remember taking a Madrileno friend prior to dinner at nearby Zucca and after a swift but heated argument with the bartender on the best sherry on the menu and two plates of their heavenly croqueta, he happily declared it the equal of anywhere in Madrid.

Pizarro is a different level to the bustle of Jose. It's a significant step up in size for one, and though there's window seating and bar service, the majority of the covers occupy dark, masculine furniture evocative of a high end wine shop. We took a seat at the marble bar and eyed up the short menu.

While everything is available for sharing as you'd expect from the tapas king, there's a slightly more ordered approach here, with the menu broken up into small and large plates. We went for two of each, which arrived in that order, much in the manner of a starter and a main course...

As well as some of the divine jamon croquetas, we went with razor clams to start. Served in their shells with lashings of garlicky butter and sticky nuggets of chorizo to contrast with the soft flesh of the shellfish, they were perfectly well cooked if not quite to my taste, I traded the last one for another go on the croquetas, an outcome that suited both parties. Of the mains, we shared a slightly one dimensional if well conceived dish of roasted root vegetables and curdy but bland goats cheese. The other shared 'main' was as lovely a lump of roasted lamb as I've had in some time, soused in good oil and dotted with olives, insanely tasty little flavour bombs when crisped in the hot oven.

It wasn't as busy as I was expecting, possibly less surprising as it was a mid week lunch later in service. In itself not a problem, though it did deaden the mood slightly. I'd definitely recommend an evening table shared with friends. You can go through most of the menu between 4 or 5 of you and with the help of an exceptionally well chosen wine list and the knowledgable, friendly staff have a very acceptable night out.

Pizarro  on Urbanspoon

Waiting for 10 Greek Street - Apr 2012

This month I will be mostly doing nothing new... I'm going to try to only go to places I've been to, and enjoyed, before. Over recent months I've definitely been guilty of only focussing on potentially exciting openings, as often as not being fairly underwhelmed. Either that or I'll don sackcloth and ashes and stay in till after the Olympics.     
The problem is that my eyes are literally bigger than my belly. And there are so many new places, each sounding more exciting than the last; authentic BBQ, London's first Peruvian, basement sex shop Mexicans, a slew of one dish or one ingredient specialists and pop up this, that and the other. It's a frothing seething circle-jerk of new. And it all sounds so bloody good on paper.   

So apart from being able to smugly inform you what I think of these places the second they appear, what other benefits are there to being first? Sweet few as it turns out... If you're lucky you miss the crowds, but you also get to deal with a world of settling in services and chefs and while you might discover a little gem, you're never going back to find out if it was truly as good as you thought it was. While restaurants can be like theatre, there are also plenty of reasons for returning to old favourites.
After a few years of East and West most definitely being best, Soho and Covent Garden, my preferred stomping grounds, are undergoing a resurgence at the moment and 10 Greek Street ticked every on trend box when it opened last month. A barely reclaimed austere space with found decor, a short and simple list of regularly changing seasonal specials and a no reservations policy... All they needed were young, beautiful staff with tattoos and you could chalk up a restaurant of the year nomination here and now.  

Ah, that oh so 'now' no reservations policy... Leave your number and head off for a drink in Soho's glamorous Soho. I pushed our cagey host on a rough time but he wasn't being drawn.
"Any idea roughly how long we'll be? It doesn't matter, we're not starving, we just wanted a rough idea?"
"Couldn't tell you mate, we'll give you a call when it's your turn."
"20 minutes you reckon? Half an hour? An hour? Two?"
"Could be mate, could be."

We retired to the unlovely pub across the road, poised, like slightly boozy sprinters ready to flee... I understand the logic but it hardly makes for a relaxing pre-dinner experience. I wonder whether they'd have waited for us if we'd just got another round in as the call came?  

And the food? After a three beer wait it was probably fine. Very well sourced, moderately well cooked bits of rare breed protein served with clumps of heritage green stuff on a bed of carb. There was probably a gravy too. It really wasn't bad at all, Someone had rare, too bleedy (sous vide maybe?) duck, and I remember totally enjoying what was almost certainly a pork chop on celariac mash but without looking at the menu I can't be totally sure. After another couple of bottles of wine I don't recall a huge amount. We all finished with a pear tartin, also fine, though no real oomph to it, and none of the blackened sticky toffee notes you need in a good tartin. A perfectly acceptable end to perfectly acceptable cooking. 

You're not here for the food at the moment though, it's more for the knowing ambience of early adopter and the whiff of new. If you're after that, you won't be disappointed. When the buzz dies down, there's a decent little local bistro here, the kind you'll want to get to know. I'd save it for the early week dinner in a couple of months time. It's going to be there for a while, so don't all rush at once.

At Hugh... this time the only thing I can describe!
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