Monthly archive

January 2016

The Joint, Brixton

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My awkward relationship with Brixton’s restaurants continued with The Joint, a barbecue place in Brixton Village Market. I’ve written before about my biggest problem with Brixton: quite a bit of choice, but mostly in places that are outdoors which isn’t great even on a mild night.

When we got to The Joint, I was a little annoyed to be moved from the table for four my friend and I sat down at, which was next to a heater, to an unheated two seater table – there were other four-seater tables free in case a bigger group came along, and I said so, but apparently rules are rules even on a quiet Sunday evening. Nobody came and sat at that table while we were there. Nearby Franco Manca, at £5.90 for a rather excellent cheese pizza for one, can just about get away with chilly, quasi-outdoor dining. The Joint cannot.

My baby back ribs (£11) were few in number, fatty and didn’t have much meat on them. In total, I got about as much meat as I would expect from a starter course somewhere else. They tasted fine, the same as baby back ribs usually do. The barbecue sauce they came in may have come from a Heinz bottle.

These came with four onion rings which were deep fried for too long in breadcrumbs, so they were just flavourless, oily bits of crunch, plus “salad” and “slaw” which were three undressed lettuce leaves and a mound of thinly shredded, mayo-free white cabbage respectively. I was not just unsatisfied at the end of this, I was hungry and a little sad.

My friend’s beef brisket sandwich (£9.50) was also paltry and small, and it didn’t even come with any shredded cabbage or lettuce leaves. The meat itself tasted OK, but it was nothing special.

As Ben has said, there is no shortage of good barbecue places in London, and even Brixton has Miss P’s in Pop Brixton around the corner from The Joint. My baseline is Bodean’s: if you can’t beat their food, which is admittedly not very good but still inexpensive and satisfying, what the hell do you think you’re doing running a restaurant?

The Joint fails this basic test, and you should spare yourself the disappointment – and the cold.

Score: Avoid.

Flat Iron, Covent Garden

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One of the things we’re aiming to do at Straight Up London is to create a useable guide to London: something that isn’t just interesting to read, but that is helpful for people deciding where to eat tonight. It’s why we’re putting so much effort into the food map (which now has 93 recommendations!) and generally try to emphasise things like portion size and price, which are probably too gauche for ‘real’ reviewers, but matter a lot to people who want dinner.

It’s impossible to discuss Flat Iron without mentioning this, because Flat Iron offers a meal of almost unbelievable value. It would be good at twice the price; as it is, it is unmissable.

The Flat Iron steak
The Flat Iron steak

The one main course on the menu is a ‘flat iron’ cut of steak, plus specials – on the Monday we went, a hamburger with shallots and bearnaise sauce and a rump cut that had sold out by 6:30pm. This costs a mere £10.

It’s difficult to emphasise how inexpensive this is for a steak of any quality. Crap pubs typically sell 8oz cuts of rump steak for £12-13, and these are generally grey and depressing. But Flat Iron’s steak is meaty, beefy, richly flavoured and cooked perfectly – seared on the outside and a deep, luscious pink throughout. (They offer the steak cooked either medium rare or well done – two choices.)

At about 200g (7oz), it is not enormous, but I savoured ever little bite, mopping up the meat juices as I went.

Yep, they're chips alright
Yep, they’re chips alright

The small green salad that comes with this is dressed simply, and gives a few nice sharp bites to go with the beef. The chips were nicely crunchy and had a hint of beefy flavour, and went well in the bearnaise sauce (which is probably my favourite dip for chips, come to think of it).

"Sophie's" blue cheese and pecan salad
Blue cheese and pecan salad

The only misstep was the blue cheese and candied pecan salad, which didn’t hang together physically very well – we’d eaten half of it before we realised that all the bits of pecan were at the bottom of the bowl. It seemed a little pointless, but no matter.

Flat Iron, we were told, doesn’t really do desserts or post-meal coffee, but you get a free caramel ice-cream on the way out. I liked the unfussy atmosphere, and our waitress was friendly and attentive despite it being very busy (on a Monday night!). The super-sharp cleaver-shaped knives are a fun touch, too.

We didn’t linger, and I suspect this is part of how Flat Iron can do what it does: quick turnaround and economies of scale from only having one menu item mean you can get an astonishingly high-quality meal for very little in the tourist centre of London. Get people in and out quickly (without making them feel rushed – the ice-cream is a nice nudge), bulk-buy one main ingredient, and cook it in one of two ways to save on labour costs.

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Our meal for two came to £42 including a beer each.

Like Napoleon, whose military genius was in the logistics of feeding and moving his armies around more effectively than his enemies, Flat Iron is a triumph of economics above all else. And it really is a triumph.

Score: Two medals (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

Dip & Flip, Tooting

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Dip & Flip is one of the large number of middle-market hamburger restaurants that have swarmed like locusts across the city. This swarm is an unreservedly good thing, because hamburgers are delicious and just a few years ago it was very difficult to find anywhere decent at all. I wake up in cold sweats sometimes remembering the time I wanted a burger so much in 2009 that I resorted to the awful Gourmet Burger Kitchen, whose name is misleading on at least two out of three counts.

Hamburger with fried egg

Dip & Flip sets itself apart from the Patty and Buns and Honest Burgers of this world by topping its hamburgers with thin slices of roast beef or lamb and pouring gravy over most of the food they sell, as well as giving you a bowl of gravy to dip your burger into. In these things it is unique, and although it is probably not the best hamburger you can get in London, it is special enough that I tend to crave it regularly.

Their newest branch in Tooting was half-empty when I visited on Thursday night, which is hopefully a reflection of Tooting’s gentrification-in-progress status more than insufficient demand for what Dip & Flip are selling. I had the Dip & Flip burger with lamb, and the chips with cheese curds and gravy. They used to call this poutine but I suspect poutine purists complained.

The burger looks slightly gross like this, sorry
The burger looks slightly gross like this, sorry

The burger was good, as it usually is: a generous patty cooked to pinkness, some cheese, two large longitudinally-sliced bits of pickle, a fairly hefty topping of roast lamb (cut very thinly) and quite a lot of gravy. The burger was large but well balanced, though my lamb was a little too fatty. For some reason one of the girls I was eating with had an egg added to hers, which sounds absolutely disgusting to me, but she said was very good.

Definitely not poutine
Definitely not poutine

Chips were perhaps a little limp, though this might be inevitable because of the amount of gravy they were served in. What worked quite well about the chips was the herbs (thyme?) they were topped with, which added to the savouriness. The gravy itself was pretty similar to what you get with any decent roast dinner. My biggest complaint about the gravy is that, because they serve it in a wide tin bowl, it goes quite cold quickly, which is a little unappetising by the end of the meal when everything else is lukewarm.

My peanut butter and chocolate milkshake was fine – far worse than Shake Shack’s or McDonald’s’s, but about as good as most other milkshakes I’ve had. The smaller size is perfectly adequate, by the way – the large is unnecessary. Bourbon was a nice addition to the chocolate shake.

A pint of milkshake
A pint of milkshake

To my mind, this all goes together rather well. Dipping the burger in the gravy feels luxurious and indulgent, and the burger itself is constructed well enough to mostly hold together during this ordeal. From looking at pictures of poutine, I think a thicker gravy might work better for the chips, though not for the burger.

It is difficult – no, impossible – to eat this food without getting really messy, which bothers me less than some. Do not go on a first date here with anyone except a confirmed sitophile. And the sheer volume and richness of the food may be too much for some people to enjoy. Interestingly, of the three times I have been to Dip & Flip, at least one person with me has been unimpressed with the whole thing. (Out of politeness, I won’t name the person who said they preferred Byron – Byron!)

But for me, Dip & Flip has smartly side-stepped the main hamburger competition and come up with a unique, meaty meal that occupies its own space in my mind as most other burgers do not. And its three branches are all in south London – Clapham Junction, Wimbledon and Tooting – which, selfishly, makes me like them that bit more. I can understand why Dip & Flip isn’t for everyone, but for anyone to whom food being ‘too much’ sounds like a positive, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Rating: 〶 – One medal.

Shuang Shuang, Chinatown

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Since Christmas I’ve been on a cooking-binge, making spatchcocked chickens, risottos and chillis, mostly from J Kenji Lopéz-Alt’s The Food Lab cookbook (which is quite brilliant). Even when things don’t turn out as brilliantly as they might if they’d been from a restaurant, there’s something very special about making your own food.

I think this is why I liked Shuang Shuang, a new Chinese hotpot restaurant on the edge of Chinatown, so much from the outset. The conveyor-belt did give me terrifying flashbacks to Yo! Sushi, which still feels like some of the most overpriced food I’ve ever had (even the tap water cost money, and there was a tap at the table), and I felt a bit anxious looking at the little plates of raw food circling around the restaurant.

Each diner at Shuang Shuang has at their place an individually-heated steel pot that keeps their broth warm, into which you’re supposed to drop some raw ingredients and let them cook for a while. Of the five broths, I chose the mala, made with dried chilis and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, which was surprisingly mild – I could have had it spicier, but last time I tried this broth at ‘authentic’ hotness (at Megan’s Kitchen in Hong Kong) I spent the rest of the day doubled over in pain, crying.

My mala broth being poured
My mala broth being poured

Despite being fairly mild, this was deeply flavoured and was quite delicious in its own right, not just as a cooking vessel for the food. The ‘sour’ lamb broth was also rich and delicious.

Alongside the broth was a trio of sauces (red beancurd paste, sesame butter and sha cha oil) and a bowl of chopped aromatics – chilis, coriander, garlic and so on – that we were supposed to mix up. These dipping sauces are apparently as important to hotpot as gravy is to Sunday roast, but I forgot about them for most of the meal. They did add something to the food, but weren’t essential by any means. Perhaps if they hadn’t been there I would be complaining that there was no sharpness to the food, or something.

Normally I accompany my reviews with photos of all or nearly all the food I ate. This time, I had my hands full. Eating at Shuang Shuang is a bit of work, because you end up cooking different things at the same time. Each dish has an advised cooking time (which erred a bit too much on the side of caution, if you ask me) and at any given time my pot usually had mushrooms, cabbage, beancurd ‘bows’ (highly recommended) and a few bits of meat as well.

Hotpot with cabbage, mushrooms and fish balls.
Hotpot with cabbage, mushrooms and fish balls.

The plates piled up, the broth was refilled, and I began to feel more and more like a steppe warlord enjoying himself after ravaging some little fishing village. The plates of food were small, but mostly reasonably priced, and part of the joy of the whole process was how much I savoured every bite. The most expensive blue plates are mostly missable – expensive cuts of beef and bits of fish are slightly lost on hotpot –  and, unlike Yo! Sushi, there’s plenty of nice meat and fish at the lower price points.

 

Eventually the broth began to reduce down and the plates had piled up so high that I figured that I should leave. Our bill came to £69 for two, including service and two beers each. Not exactly cheap, but for the sort of cooking you simply cannot get for a mass audience anywhere else in London, worth it.

Maybe because I went in that interregnum between Christmas and New Year, maybe because the spice of the mala broth built up over the meal, maybe because the staff were chatty and sweet, but the overwhelming feeling I felt about Shuang Shuang was warmth: warming, simple, delicious food that mixes the flavours of a really good Chinese restaurant with the satisfaction that you can only really get from cooking for yourself at home. Some of the dishes were a little bland but on the whole it felt special, unique and bold, and something that I’ve found myself craving ever since.

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

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