Monthly archive

December 2015

Noble Rot, Bloomsbury

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Noble Rot is an aspirational place for me, because in theory it says that I could one day be a restauranteur. Originally the folks behind Noble Rot had just a magazine—a beautiful magazine with some good features—and now they have a beautiful website, restaurant and wine bar too. Right now I have just a humble website, but perhaps one day I too could take what I’ve learned from gluttony and start selling my own food.

Then again, I’d be a bit worried in trying to follow Noble Rot, which is an impressive, stylish place. However, I have the advantage that, like the founders of Noble Rot, I know exactly what I want from a restaurant. Noble Rot is an instructive example of how to do this business correctly, even if it’s not the greatest restaurant in the world.

1. Keep the menu short and to the point

A thing of wonder
A thing of wonder

This is what menus should look like. A bunch of starters, a few mains, a few desserts. A short menu inspires confidence that they know what they’re doing. Simply listing ingredients is also reassuring, though increasingly common. For some reason I also like the fact that the vegetarian options don’t have a little ‘(v)’ after them, but I can’t exactly explain why—economy in presentation?

The combinations are mostly things I hadn’t tried before, even if I’d tasted particular ingredients—though perhaps not all as much as the halibut braised in an oxidised wine from a specific year that goes for around £300/bottle.

2. Do everything you do properly

I always have a good feeling about a restaurant when the bread is good. Perhaps it’s because it suggests they care about every element of the meal; perhaps it’s just because I love bread. Bread at Noble Rot doesn’t come free, but I’d rather pay £4 for a veritable pile of three different breads than nothing for an afterthought.

Here the offering is focaccia, sourdough and soda bread. The first is flaky and weighed down by the fact it’s utterly soaked in olive oil. Biting into out and feeling it exude oil like water out of a towel when you wring it out is joyous. The sourdough is like sourdough anywhere, chewy and light in the middle and tough and crusty on the outside. The soda bread is special: sweet like a digestive, heavy and crumbly, contrasting well with creamy butter. Five of us ate from the one plate and were satisfied.

Slipsole with smoked butter
Slipsole with smoked butter

Other starters were mostly excellent too. The burrata, pumpkin and hazelnut is just the sort of easy but effective contrast that you’d like to recreate at home if you could be bothered to cook a pumpkin—sweet, creamy and bitter. The rabbit and pork terrine was more or less what you’d expect, although my sister was put off by the giant lumps of solid fat it was studded with.

Best was the slipsole, a very delicate and small fish, whose bones you could completely avoid if you pulled it apart carefully from the centre. It had a very light flavour itself, like any other white fish minus most of the fishiness, but the dish tasted strongly of the smoked butter, which is quite unlike regular butter.

Before I’ve seen it served with bread, and then as now it tasted powerfully savoury, like it had been fermented or whipped with monosodium glutamate. But here it also tasted a bit like chorizo, from the smoking, as well as having the same orangey colour as its oil.

Even where Noble Rot fell down, it was instructive: of the mains, the duck was my least favourite. It was braised in wine, which lent it a sort of dirty, deep flavour, like beef casserole. And who doesn’t prefer their duck skin crispy? I honestly can’t see why anyone would do anything other than confit a duck leg. The quail with bacon and sprouts was better, but the waitress promised a medium rare wild bird and it was cooked through.

But the other main—the extra-special halibut—was good enough to make up for those slight mis-steps. The sauce was luxurious, creamy and sour, I suppose that was the oxidised-ness of the wine showing through. The halibut came in one thick cuboid chunk and came apart in substantial meaty flakes. It was on a bed of leek (soft and slick but mostly a flavourless vessel for the sauce) and if I’m not mistaken lemongrass. Most people don’t munch on lemongrass but after a long braising it was soft enough to just about chew through—though rather woody I enjoyed the tangy burst.

3. Keep to your theme

Make every element of the restaurant fit. It’s OK for a Chinese hotpot restaurant to have a conveyor belt, bright lighting and utilitarian service, but a fancy French restaurant needs to have exquisite attention to detail and nice wallpaper. Noble Rot does this too.

The first 10 or so metres in feels like a casual wine bar—albeit one offering some rather expensive bottles of wine, and with the special feature that you can try just 75ml of some of the wines, for an affordable sup of a special bottle. This first section is dark and atmospheric and loud with conversation.

The next section is equally dim and candle-lit but has an added old London wood panel feeling. There are wine-themed newspaper cartoons framed around the place, some of them quite amusing, and lots of stuff is a burgundy or red wine colour.

Keeping to these three rules makes Noble Rot a lovely place to go to even if you’re not seeking after one of their rare wines, and even if they make mistakes with your food (we had two main courses forgotten).

Score: 〶 – one medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

Nanban, Brixton

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A few months ago I moved to Brixton by accident, and I’ve been slightly frustrated by it ever since. (I thought I had moved to Stockwell but realised a few weeks in that I was only about five minutes away from Brixton High Street.) Of course it is a hip area with quite a few nice restaurants and a large H&M, but the problem here is that most of the nice places to eat are in Brixton Village market or the recently-opened Pop Brixton. The problem with both being that most places therein are unheated and become quite freezing outside of the summer months, and also require you to walk 100 meters to go to a toilet.

Good standalone restaurants are much rarer for now but more are probably on their way. The strangeness of Coldharbour Lane, where places like cocktail bar Three Eight Four sit across from Ultimate Jerk Centre (not what it might sound like) and next to Liquor Supply, cannot last for long. My only problem with gentrification is that it takes so long.

Nanban is one of Coldharbour Lane’s newest gentry outposts, and advertises itself as selling Japanese soul food, mostly ramen. It’s the first restaurant set up by a man who won Masterchef, which may be as much a curse (in terms of coolness) as it is a blessing (in terms of recognition).

Nanban’s food seems to be a sort of mixture of Japanese dishes with Brixtonian (that is, Afro-Carribbean) flourishes – ackee and saltfish fritters with katsu sauce, for example, which tasted a bit too much like boring fishcakes for my liking, despite being quite hearty.

Ackee and saltfish fritters
Ackee and saltfish fritters

Electric eel was a lot more interesting, with thin slices of smoked (but otherwise uncooked) eel with a deliciously firm texture and deep, smoky, briny flavour. The apple, fried noodle, daikon and cucumber topping was slightly redundant in terms of flavour, but I probably would miss the crunch if it hadn’t been there.

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‘Electric’ smoked eel with apple, cucumber and daikon topping

The twice-cooked pig tripe itself was quite excellent. I’d never had tripe before and assumed it would be tough and leathery, which is how I imagine stomachs to be, physiologically. But this was firm on the outside and soft in the middle and had the rich flavour of liver. The cooked salad of beansprouts and cabbage it came in had a warming, spicy miso sauce whose flavour is difficult to describe. Umami, I guess, but sort of like a less offensive marmite.

Twice-cooked pig tripe
Twice-cooked pig tripe
Kumamoto ramen
Kumamoto ramen

My bowl of ramen came with a rich, thick broth – much thicker than I’ve had anywhere else. It was initially flawless: the broth was absolutely delicious with the black burnt garlic oil that was squeezed into one of the corners, the pickled mustard greens offset the creaminess of the broth beautifully, the huge hunks of pork belly (one was nearly a centimetre thick!) were porky and melted in my mouth, the little bits of fried garlic made some bites surprising and interesting, and the noodles themselves were firm and bitey.

I really loved it, but as I ate it it sort of… dragged on. I think the broth became starchier or the pickled mustard greens lost their bite, because by the end of the bowl it felt like a heavy stew more than anything, and had lost some of the quirks that made it seem so special to begin with. Perhaps this could be solved by simply serving the mustard pickles on the side, because this bowl of ramen was truly approaching greatness, and I do not think it would take much more to bring it there.

Sasebo burger
Sasebo burger

My date was less excited by her ‘Sasebo burger’, though it seemed absolutely delicious to me. It, too, came with a little slab of pork belly on top and a spicy burger sauce (one of the most underrated condiments in general, I think). The patty was cooked basically perfectly, with a black char on the outside and a deep pinkness on the inside. The chips were also light and fluffy.

She objected that there wasn’t enough about the burger that made it special – just not enough pork belly, not enough Japaneseness. This may hit at the real problem with going for authenticity – I suspect Japanese burger lovers do not want more Japanesey burgers, they want Westerny burgers. If you’re trying to sell authentic Japanese soul food and what’s authentic is actually very mundane for your Western diners, what do you do?

I think Nanban is already one of Brixton’s best proper restaurants, and although the competition isn’t great, after being open for just three months that ain’t bad. But I expect it to become significantly better as its chefs learn what works and what doesn’t. Most of the flaws I found seem like they could be fixed with very minor tweaks. I’ll be back to Nanban, and I look forward to it properly hitting its stride.

Score: 〶 – one medal.

Ma’Plucker, Soho

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I tried really hard to think of an angle for this review – a discussion of the rise of American soul food in London, for instance, or of how a restaurant focusing on one type of food can be a blessing (cheaper, better quality, less potential for regret) or a curse (because you’ll always end up comparing it to the best food of that kind you’ve ever had). But I couldn’t do it. It’s not because Ma’Plucker is particularly bad, I just can’t see the point of it.

Craving fried chicken of the Chick’n Sours variety led me to Ma’Plucker, which at 6:30pm was deserted – not so much a bad sign as utterly bizarre for Friday evening in Soho, when even the worst places seem to manage to get some people in. It had filled up a few tables when I came back about an hour later but it still felt weirdly empty. I don’t mean that as a mark against the place but it was fairly strange.

Our waiter was extremely friendly and smiley, which was nice, and the restaurant itself was brightly lit with wooden benches and tables, diner style. The menu offers a choice between a salad, a ‘house bun’ or a maple waffle, and then three different kinds of chicken – rotisserie, battered and fried, or ‘low and slow pulled’, which sounds disgusting to me but which Ben said he enjoyed when he went.

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Our side of ‘crack and cheeze’ came first, and turned out to be a cricket ball-sized ball of macaroni and cheese deep fried in breadcrumbs. The macaroni was undersauced and fairly flavourless, but was fried well so the crunchy outside texture made up for that somewhat.

But the pickles were a disgrace – £2 for about seven small, limp spears which you’d pay 99p for a jar of 50 of in Tesco. For £3 at Bone Daddies you can get a platter of weird, delicious home-pickled vegetables. I don’t know what Ma’Plucker is thinking in charging for these things – they were an exploitative, nasty rip-off.

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My main of buttermilk fried chicken in the ‘house bun’ was better. The chicken itself was fairly generously portioned and fried well – probably a little too long or hot, because the outside was really crunchy (and broke up a lot when I cut into it), but the (breast) meat was succulent and enjoyable. The ‘house bun’ was a very large floury bap and there was far too much of it to eat as a burger, so I threw away the top half and just ate the rest with my knife and fork.

I’m unclear about what role chicken skin played in the ‘chicken skin gravy’, because it tasted like the gravy I get at my local fish and chip shop, which I mean as praise, but was still not terribly exciting. It went nicely with the chicken.

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After that I wasn’t quite full up, but I didn’t fancy staying, so I settled up. £35 for two chicken burgers, two beers and one side isn’t exactly cheap, and I didn’t feel like I’d gotten value for money, but at least the chicken itself was pretty good. The pickle rip-off makes me tempted to give Ma’Plucker an ‘Avoid’ rating, just out of annoyance, but it’s not even that inspiring – it’s just another boring wannabe chain that can’t do it as well as its competition.

Score: No medals. 

The Lockhart, Marylebone

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It is a mark strongly in favour of The Lockhart that its menu has changed almost completely between early 2014 and now and yet looks equally beautiful across the board. Everything now, as then, is a perfectly-balanced mid-point between sophisticated modern London dining and hearty, warming southern USA staples.

Whereas then your mains options were shrimp and grits, smoked pork neck, stuffed quail, and venison saddle, plus a £70 smoked ribeye; when I went last Friday you were faced with trout farci, southern fried chicken, smoked turkey, short rib, red deer, and rabbit, as well as the shrimp and grits. Is there anything on that menu you wouldn’t like to order?

The starters were the same: all change in content and yet not in expected deliciousness. Who couldn’t want to eat pickled okra? Who couldn’t want to try coffee-cured lonza (pork fillet)? A good menu is really pleasing. I only get choice paralysis when I’m worried both might not be that good—if they both look unmissable I order both or come back.

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Snacks at The Lockhart

Snacks at The Lockhart price somewhere between £1 and £4. I’ve never had pickled prawns before, but imagine a food with the firm texture of cold prawns and the sour flavour of gherkins and you’ve basically eaten them too.

The pickled okra was also delicious, but not really in an interesting way—the pickled okra they once did at Spuntino did more to bring out the heady herby flavour of the okra, only complementing, rather than smothering, it with the vinegar. The lonza was very impressive: it didn’t taste of coffee but it did have the subtle almost liquidy texture of good ham. It tasted of salty and savoury goodness.

I wish I had a picture of the cornbread, which was a steal at five pounds: it was about two inches thick, almost as wide and long as my laptop keyboard, fresh out of the oven, slathered in hot liquid butter, and free of gimmicks like including whole pieces of sweetcorn. The edges had thin crustings where the dough had imbibed honey and gone a bit firmer. It was a dream and we wolfed it down.

Wedge salad
Quintessentially American food

Wedge salad is such a winning, American food. I didn’t actually try this dish, my dad ordered it. But he loved it, and it looked so good, so I felt I had to include a picture.

The smoked fish oat dish tasted mostly of citrus
The smoked fish oat dish tasted mostly of citrus

I was less impressed with the smoked fish / oat / meyer lemon dish. I like smoked fish dishes to be an overpowering gust of salt, whereas this mainly tasted of fresh citrus. It was a bit like the old joke ‘do you want any sausages with your ketchup?’—I think the meyer lemon (apparently a cross between a mandarin and a normal lemon, explaining its sweetness) had too much influence on the dish.

The joy of properly-cooked red meat never wears off
The joy of properly-cooked red meat never wears off

I shared half of rabbit & dumplings, which was essentially a casserole—I didn’t know that dumplings were an American dish but I guess Americ is just an amalgam of all different people from across Europe and the world so why not. The rabbit was tender and lean; the dumplings were soft, and chewily bound together.

I also had half of the smoked red deer and boy was it cooked properly: black on the outside but only going about a millimetre deep; no grey and light pink gradient towards the deep dark medium rare centre.

The mains I just had bites of were excellent too. The southern fried chicken was dry and crispy yet juicy inside & came with an interesting soup of collard greens and a clear broth. The smoked short rib was as dark and ultra-tender as you could hope for.

Dessert
Dessert

Dessert also walked the tightrope between Southern US comfort food and restaurant food in England today. The pumpkin pie was great, but no better than the pie I ate at thanksgiving. I didn’t try the chocolate chess pie or lemon icebox pie but they were received very well. The bourbon Canelé—the doughnuts in the bottom right—didn’t taste so much like bourbon as like deep-fried dough and sugar, but not for the worse, that’s pretty much what you’re looking for. After a big meal I couldn’t manage more than half of one.

The Lockhart is a lovely restaurant. Its interiors feel a bit empty and spare, like a trial run to the beautiful room that its sister Shotgun has in Soho. Its music is an amusing mix of 2004-2008 indie rock and pop rock hits (Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight, The Kinks, and the Kaiser Chiefs all got a look-in while I was there). But it serves really lovely food, the kind of food that makes you feel happy and warm—and full.

Score: 〶 – one medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

 

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