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Sam Bowman

Sam Bowman has 21 articles published.

Tozi, Victoria

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For some of us, it’s difficult to visit a restaurant without having read at least one review first. There’s nothing I enjoy less than a bad meal, so to avoid that I rely on a handful of trusted friends, bloggers and tweeters to guide me. It works pretty well, but following the herd has its price: there must be dozens of good places out there that just never really break through.

Tozi is one of those places. Just off Wilton Street near Victoria station, home to the ridiculous (Loco Mexicano, Preto churrascaria) and the sublime (A Wong), I must have passed it dozens of times while it’s been open over the last five years, but when I was invited to eat there I assumed it was brand new.

The room is smart and airy, and mostly full on a Monday evening. The menu is mostly Venetian-style “cichetti” sharing plates, though we are here to try their new, one-week only Piemontese menu. We ask for all of the Piemontese menu, with accompanying wines, and a few dishes that the waiter recommends from the main menu.

Our first two dishes are a salami whose name I cannot remember and Testun al Barolo, a sheep and goat’s cheese packed in grapes. The salami is fatty and powerfully meaty, like a terrine, though the slices are perhaps a little too thin. The cheese is amazing, with the grapey sweetness mingling with the sharp goats cheese to create an incredibly rich combination unlike any cheese I’ve tasted before.

Next up is the first Piemontese dish, carpaccio of beef topped with pickled mushrooms and parmesan. I usually find carpaccio a bit too elegant and dull, and despite the chef’s best efforts with the pickled mushrooms this did leave me slightly underwhelmed. The ingredients were flawless, though, the beef being astonishingly tender and as flavorsome as thin, raw beef fillet can be. This was from a “Fassona” cow, a Piemontese breed famed in Italy for its tenderness.

Onto the raviolis. One dish is three large, ricotta-stuffed packets of ravioli, the other a Piemotese Agnolotti del Plin of much smaller stuffed bits of pasta, about the size and look of a whelk. Both come in a “butter sauce”, which is fabulously delicious. The first is swimming in the stuff, and the utility monster in me licks the plate clean. The second is more restrained to give the black truffle some space, and as you want with black truffle the aroma pervades every bite. Yum.

Our last savoury dish is Brasato al Barolo, a beef rump braised in a (quite expensive) Piemontese wine, served with mashed potatoes. OK: it looks like Irish stew. But it was a testament to the power of cooking with really, really good ingredients. The beef melted in your mouth, the sauce packed a powerful and complex flavour punch that betrayed hours of braising, shot through with parsley to lift things with a little lightness. And the potatoes were delicate and fluffy. I hated sharing it.

Finally, a chocolate bonet, which was like a chocolate creme caramel, with cream and Amaretto syrup. I’m not really a dessert person, and though this was clearly very well put together it felt a little bit of a come down from much of the other food we’d eaten. The real star of the course was the digestif we drank – Chinato Borgogno, which tasted a bit like a Campari mixed with a light tawny port. Bitter and sweet at the same time and truly unlike any other alcohol I’ve tasted.

I did not have high expectations going to Tozi. How could an upmarket Italian I’d never heard of, five minutes from Victoria station, be any good? But it was. It had confidence in itself, enough to let excellent ingredients speak for themselves and to present the food as it would be done in Italy, rather than with gimmicky twists. Though the Piemontese menu was a one-off, it would not surprise me to see some of the items added to the normal menu.

The big catch, and I’m afraid there is one, is that these ingredients come at a price: our meal would have been £101, had it not been comped and if we’d opted for a bottle of wine instead of the wine pairings (as well as a glass of the Chinato), and that’s for a fairly modest amount of food. That’s a pain for me, but it isn’t for everyone, and there’s something very nice about a place that refuses to compromise on the quality of its inputs. In an area not exactly brimming with talent and dominated by obnoxious, overpriced chains, Tozi’s quiet self-confidence deserves a wider audience.

Rating: One medal.

I was invited to review Tozi.

Som Saa, Spitalfields

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Back in my very first Straight Up London review I worried that Som Saa, in its past iteration as a pop-up in London Fields, might never reach the greatness that a few of its dishes suggested it might be capable of.

Now, Som Saa has set up permanent shop in Spitalfields. Three visits later, I feel qualified to say it’s done more than just ditch the crap dishes: it’s probably now my favourite restaurant in London.

I don’t usually care for cocktails, but since you’ll usually be waiting for a while at Som Saa (we had a 90-minute wait for our table on a Friday night, which we could leave after putting our name down for, but they advise coming back fifteen minutes or so before your table’s ready), and the beer is relatively pricey, you might be tempted. In my experience the stand out choice is the “Dragon’s Milk”, made with sticky rice rum and condensed milk and quite unlike any other cocktail I’ve ever had. Others aren’t bad, but aren’t remarkable.

The menu recommends that you order four or five dishes between two people, and they vary pretty substantially in size. First up for us was the grilled pork neck with “shrimp paste spiked dipping sauce” (£8). The slices of pork were pink and juicy in the middle, shot through with a vein of fat, and with a crunchy exterior. It’s hard to share food like this: the dipping sauce was an explosion of savoury and sour flavours of shrimp and lime juice that gave an acidic edge to the meatiness of the pork.

Som Tam “Bangkok style”, the green papaya salad that’s basically ubiquitous in Thailand, was fiery hot, crunchy fresh and peanutty. We mopped up its sauce with a side of sticky rice. This was the least adventurous dish we tried – after the highly adventurous “isaan style” som tam that reminded me of rotting fish, it was enjoyable to try a dish I’ve had dozens of times done to near-perfection.

Funnily enough, a dish of pork, green beans and morning glory (£9.5) stir fried in a meat broth was one of my favourites. The pork had thick and crunchy crackling, but the broth itself was really impressively meaty and a little liquoricey, lightly flavoured in a way that juxtaposed nicely against the rest of the meal’s punch-you-in-the-face flavours.

The highlight, always, is the deep fried whole seabass. This is served in a similar sauce to the pork neck’s dipping sauce, and it’s a joy to break off bits of crunchy-skinned, moist fish to mop up this liquid with. The gigantic mound of coriander and roasted rice powder adds to the flavour and gives bitefuls an explosively fresh taste. At £16.50 for a whole sea bass, I think for the money this is probably the best dish you can get anywhere in London at the moment.

Green curry with salted goat (£14) was, like the som tam, an example of a classic dish done to perfection – not sweet or coconutty like some green curries I’m used to, but a thick and rich stew of Thai spices and flavours with big, fatty hunks of goat meat and jelly bean-sized Thai aubergines that popped with a bitterness that gave a new dimension to the curry’s flavour.

I’ve now tried nearly everything on the menu at Som Saa, and there are very few misfires, even for a place where a misfire is still a cut above anything most Thai restaurants can manage. Everything about Som Saa is a pleasure: the room is big and open, with fun 20th Century Thai pop art on the walls, and the staff are friendly and chatty. At £95 for two including drinks and service, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.

Only Camberwell’s Silk Road also keeps me coming back again and again for the same things. It’s the place I’d take someone if I wanted to show them the food I love, and there’s nothing better I can say about it than that.

Rating: Three medals.

Breddos, Clerkenwell

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The nice thing about writing for a food blog is that underwhelming meals aren’t as disappointing as they would be otherwise. You have something to write about. If everyone else you read about food liked it, even better.

So it was with Breddos in Clerkenwell, a taco restaurant that is the new home of a very popular street food stand. I’m only aware of one good Mexican place in London, which is Strutton Ground’s Santana Grill (also street food), but after nice reviews from Chris Pople and Marina O’Loughlin I was excited to add to my list.

The room is pretty standard “London pop-up” style with concrete floors and spartan chairs and I’d guess about thirty covers. They’ve really done the street-food-turned-good thing – they already have a handsome-looking recipe book for sale on the wall. We didn’t have to wait long, even though it was Saturday night. Beers are reasonable at £3.50 for two-thirds of a pint for a deliciously zingy house IPA, and in general the pricing was quite fair – tacos were £3.50-£4.00 each.

Pork carnitas taco

Our first taco, pork carnitas, was immediately a let-down. It looked the part but the pork seemed to have been basically unflavoured and hadn’t been cooked long enough to break down into individual strands of pork. The result was an underwhelming pile of pork bits on a corn tortilla with some underflavoured green salsa, chopped onion and coriander. It just didn’t have much going on – the taco itself was excellent with real bite and a complex corn flavour, but there was no cohesion to what was on top and no real flavour other than pork. Meh.

Oh well – nowhere’s perfect, and I am used to truly excellent pork carnitas. Onto the next round – organic egg with macademia nut mole, pollo asado and kung pao pork belly. All three suffered from the same problems as the carnitas. They were dry, bland and seemed like some sauce was missing from each of them, one that would bring their ingredients together and give them some juiciness and flavour. How do you make a boring kung pao taco? There were the hallmark flavours of Sichuanese food – the numbing, fruity pepper and the freshly fiery bird’s eye chilli. But it just felt unfinished. All these were a little bit meanly portioned for the price, too – for £3.50 a pop I’d like to have more than three bites, please.

Masa fried chicken tacos were much better. Each one had a big, crispy chunk of chicken deep fried in corn dough, arched like a leaping fish out of its taco. They suffered from the bland dryness problem a bit less, too – the habanero sauce that came drizzled over them was creamy, hot and had a rich chilli flavour. These were a little more substantially portioned, too, but they still weren’t all that much for £4 each.

If there’s one thing that Breddos has made a name for itself with, it’s the fish tacos. And yes, they were superb. Each one came topped with a torpedo of battered white fish fillet, really good, fresh fish that actually tasted like fish, which is a rarity for white fish in London. I think it was haddock, based on the texture, but it might as well have been sea bass – the flavour was that good. These were advertised as coming with a chipotle-lime mayonnaise but I’m fairly sure it was actually that habanero sauce – whatever. Why did these work, where the other tacos didn’t? It was because the fish itself was moist enough and stood out enough to let the other flavours compliment it, instead of either dominating it or being absent altogether.

Annoyingly, there was about a fifteen minute wait for our last dish, the melted cheese queso fundido served in a cast iron ramekin on a little layer of crumbled sausage meat. I know Breddos is new but it’s not fun to have a massive gap at the end of your meal, especially when the dish you’re waiting for is being served to other people who arrived later than you. Oh well. It came with big thick potato chips which were strong enough to scoop up big gobs of cheese. The queso was a little underseasoned and it didn’t really live up to Ted Cruz’s promises, but it was as gooey as it looked and if it had been served at the start of the meal I probably would have enjoyed it more.

Both Pople and O’Loughlin raved about how punchy the flavours were, but the dreary lack of punch was my biggest complaint. So what happened? My best guess is that Breddos is having teething problems, and maybe even got a bit spooked by the Guardian review (which came out the day we went) and decided to tone things down a bit. It wasn’t terrible, the fish tacos were impressive, but I left feeling unsatisfied and – even after eating half of my dining companion’s food – underfed. I had high hopes for Breddos, but unless you’re really dying for fish tacos, I wouldn’t bother.

Rating: No medals. (Try something from Santana Grill instead, and pray that they get their own restaurant some day too.)

Restaurant round-up, November 2016 edition

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In the footsteps of Ben’s last post, here are some restaurants I’ve visited lately but didn’t get round to reviewing properly. I second his condemnation of Gaucho’s rubbish ‘divine bovine’ event, but differ on Chick’n Sours in Covent Garden, whose sides are mostly very good and whose chicken seemed pretty good, albeit not as good as the Dalston branch.

Mamalan, Shoreditch

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Mamalan does “Beijing-style street food” at London-style prices. There are quite a few of these dotted around so I went to the new Shoreditch branch’s soft launch for 50% off. It was a bit of a let down: the food was mostly cooked well, in terms of texture, but far too bland in terms of flavour. For example, chicken wings were fried to a crisp, but had no seasoning worth talking about. Beef noodle soup had some well-stewed beef, but lacked the sort of rich flavour you need from a broth (oh, and the noodles were overcooked). (No medals.)

Salvation in Noodles, Dalston

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I rushed through my dinner here to get to a gig I was going to, so I don’t want to judge it too harshly. For a place as hyped-up as Salvation I didn’t think it did anything special. Phu Quoc wings were very crispy and the fish sauce they were tossed in gave them a deep and unusual savoury flavour. My pho was pretty average – worse and less generous than the pho I can get at Mien Tay in Clapham. My companion enjoyed her noodle salad quite a lot, though. But are summer rolls supposed to have a big load of rice in them? What a crappy dish, if so. These were £5 for two and were at least 50% cold rice. Maybe that flies in Hanoi but this is Dalston, man. (No medals.)

Hakkasan, Mayfair

I had heard good things about Hakkasan and was excited to go with someone who’d also heard good things. It was so disappointing. The food was barely above the standard of a typical Chinatown Cantonese place – and bear in mind that this is an extremely expensive restaurant. We had fried salt and pepper squid, which was fried in a light batter but came with a sweet chilli dip that may well have come out of a bottle; pork ribs that I’d describe as “good for a takeaway”; two beef in sauce dishes that came with cuts of beef that were to my mind completely inappropriate for the heavy, thick sauces they were served with; and some (admittedly very big and juicy) prawns in a straightforward Thai coconut curry sauce. I have no idea why this place exists or has a reputation for good food. (Avoid. Strongly avoid.)

Dosa N’ Chutny, Tooting

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I’m working my way through all of Tooting’s well-known Indian restaurants and, although nothing beats Apollo Banana Leaf (Sri Lankan, strictly speaking), Dosa N’ Chutny is a very likely little place. It’s a reasonably straightforward affair: you order a dosa (a big, thin, crispy pancake) with a filling of curried potatoes and, in my case, mutton that comes on a tray with various different chutneys to dip it in. The coconut chutney in particular was very garlicky and fresh, a lovely addition to the dosa’s filling. The order above cost £4.50 and with a few sides was more than enough for a very greedy man like me. You’d be hard-pressed to spend more than £15/head here including drinks. It’s not the most ambient dining room but it’s a very sweet, likeable place. (One medal.)

The Ivy, Covent Garden

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I’ve been to The Ivy a few times now and, although it’s very expensive, it really is very good. Last time I went I had grouse for only the second time in my life, and it was really quite amazing. Grouse done right is moist and packed with a powerful, almost beefy flavour, and comes as standard with a piece of toast with a thick spread of pate on top, bread sauce, gravy and ‘game chips’ (which are crisps, I guess?). If, like me, you assumed that liking grouse was a way for people to show off about their class, I urge you to go to the Ivy at the right time of year to be proved wrong. Everything else I have ever had at the Ivy has been very well put together in the classical style. (Two medals.)

Shotgun: a tale of two menus

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Shotgun was one of the first places we ever reviewed here. Ben loved its take on US-style barbecue food: pig’s ears, beef brisket, and kid goat that made me very jealous to read about. Since then, it has been trying out specialised menus, two of which I’ll review here: an all you can eat weekend lunch, and a fried chicken dinner menu.

My first trip to Shotgun was for the all you can eat. Like presumably most people reading, I have a special place in my heart for the words “all you can eat”. There is nothing quite as crushing as the feeling of still being a little hungry after a meal out, and the proliferation of tapas-style restaurants in London has made this threat a clear and present danger. (It doesn’t help that I often share meals with people with relatively small appetites who don’t really get my anxiety about this.)

But I’m also well aware that “all you can eat” is a byword for shit. Brazilian “steak” houses, Chinese buffets, fajitas done Old El Paso style, that sort of thing. I still enjoy them for making me gut-bustingly full but I’m not proud of myself about it. For Shotgun to do an all you can eat menu, surely, was some kind of terrible fall from grace?

Ribs, burnt ends, pork neck, pork belly

Happily, surprisingly, no. Without retreading over old ground, the brisket burnt ends were beautifully crisp and bursting with a rich, flavoursome juice; the slow-cooked piglet was the best-tasting pulled pork I’ve had since my trip to Auburn, Alabama; the pork belly was balanced nicely between sweet-tasting meat and layers of fat; and the sides (things like barbecue beans and pureed potatoes) were generous, if anything too much so (I kid, there’s no such thing as too big a portion). The cornbread in particularly was the best I’ve ever had, covered with golden syrup to give it a gorgeous sweet crust.

Cornbread
Cornbread

On top of all this, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (which is quite nice, whatever Americans say) and glasses of prosecco were on sale for £2 each. The only “problem” with all this was that the first plate of food was so darn filling that I could barely finish a second. A very good problem to have, and even if £25/head is a bit steep for a normal lunch, for this I thought I was getting a good deal.

Our sides
Our sides

I cannot begin to understand what happened between that trip in September and my most recent visit, exactly a month later. This was to try Shotgun’s new “fried chicken dinner” menu, apparently introduced after the closure of The Lockhart, another restaurant from the same people with a slightly broader take on American cuisine. What could be more exciting – a proper competitor to Chick’n Sours, whose new Covent Garden branch (along with the unbeatable Good Friend Chicken) really might herald the penetration of excellent fried chicken into central London. (Disclosure: Shotgun invited me to review this meal; it did not invite me to review the earlier one.)

Pimento cheese
Pimento cheese

Things started with the same menu items as the weekend lunch. Devilled eggs were bland, but the pimento cheese was quite difficult to resist. It’s basically cheddar cheese mashed up with mayonnaise and bits of pimento pepper to a soft, spreadable spread served with little salted TUC biscuits. It won’t set the world on fire but it’s enjoyably trashy.

Dirty rice
Dirty rice

After that was the ‘dirty rice’, a bowl of rice made with ground chicken liver, chunks of andouille sausage, slices of spring onion and (allegedly) bits of crab meat, which I couldn’t detect but one of my fellow diners could. Apparently it was a soul food dish based on food given to slaves that used up leftovers and scraps.

It was a strangely offally dish to serve on a communal set menu: I quite like the taste of chicken liver, but at least a large minority of people don’t. I enjoyed the dish well enough, but it wasn’t anything special. It was strange to serve this as a course in its own right, along with the cornbread, but perhaps that’s the custom in America.

Then things started to go badly wrong. The fried chicken bits certainly looked good: they were big and golden and crispy, and came piled high in two bowls. But they tasted of, well, nothing. The batter had seemingly no seasoning or flavouring at all, tasting more like fish and chip batter than fried chicken coating. It was, in the end, far too crispy and over-battered. But just flavourless, boring, bland, pointless. The chicken was served with the Shotgun house barbecue sauces, which go well with beef and pork but were completely inappropriate for fried chicken (which, if it needs a sauce, needs gravy) at the best of times, and just did not work at all with these flavourless chunks in front of me.

The “mac and cheese” was even worse. Christ, the mac and cheese. The photo above might not capture the grim disappointment of this dish well enough, but what came out to us was small conchiglie pasta shells in a sort of orange sauce that may have turned into cheese if we’d left it long enough, but certainly didn’t seem to have ever been near the stuff before then. Shot through that sauce was at least a cupful of breadcrumbs, as if the thing that can rescue pasta-in-flavourless-orange-sauce is a great big fistful of bread. A dish made with Sainsbury’s Oven Baked Macaroni Cheese Sauce would have been better than this monstrosity.

The sides of a salad, potato puree and coleslaw were fine. But there’s another thing that bothered me: all the portions were really quite small. For a set menu like this, you hope that the standardisation means they’ll be able to give you a lot of food, but our rice and mac and cheese bowls were half as large as I’d have expected for the number of people we had, and two pieces of fried chicken each plus what are really just a lot of side dishes is terrible value for £20/head, even if the food had been half decent.

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I fear Shotgun is falling on hard times. It has a pricey-looking location just off Regent Street and upscale barbecue might not be the cash cow that it needs to be. It was busy on the Saturday afternoon we went, but almost deserted throughout the Monday evening. I felt quite sad looking seeing the handful of other diners eating their mac and cheese as I left. Maybe that explains the experimentation with different menus.

But if anyone from Shotgun is reading this: please, please consider scrapping the fried chicken menu. It was one of the worst, most disappointing meals I have had in a restaurant that I can remember having. If someone came here on the basis of one of our reviews I’d be embarrassed and suspect they would never listen to us again. I dearly hope Shotgun gets its act together soon, because doing barbecue it deserves to thrive. Doing the stuff of this fried chicken menu, it deserves to die.

Rating: Avoid, if it’s the fried chicken. If meat’s back on the menu, I think Ben’s two medals still apply, and that £25 weekend lunch is great fun.

Macellaio, Southwark

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Before I begin, I should point out that I ate at Macellaio’s new Southwark branch (it has two already – one in Clerkenwell and one in South Kensington) during its ‘soft launch’ period, during which food was 50% off and some of the kinks are still being ironed out. I’m a little uncomfortable giving a bad review to anywhere during a soft launch, because I feel like part of the deal is to put up with the problems in exchange for a cheap meal.

At the centre of the dining room were two long benches with a space in the middle for staff to walk up and down to serve diners, inexplicably raised up on a platform so high that they had to stoop down to put the plates down or hear what we were saying. I didn’t manage to take an illicit photo of one of the staff up there without it feeling invasive, so you’ll have to take my word for it. At the top of the room was a butchery station where a man wearing a trilby hat chopped steaks off one of the beef ribcages that hung beside him.

The (very large) wine list was, to me at least, unhelpfully expensive. I settled on the cheapest thing I could find, which was a £23 carafe of chianti and tasted fine, but I noticed that most of my fellow soft launch frugalists were on beer (£4.50/bottle).

Our first starter was a battuta (£5.50 before the discount), an Italian steak tartare without the strong accompaniments that steak tartare usually has like pickles and Worcestershire sauce. It was a real treat – the beef was fresh and tender and well-dressed with a good olive oil, making for a more subtle flavouring than steak tartare usually gives.

Our other two starters were more disappointing. Beef tongue (usually £5) was strong and shot through with a rich vein of fat, but the splodges of salsa verde it came with were utterly flavourless. Anchovies with butter and bread (£6) were nice enough, but literally just that – half a dozen little anchovies with a knob of creamy butter and two thin slices of bread (that tasted a little stale). I enjoyed eating a very buttery piece of bread with anchovies on top, but I don’t need to go to Macellaio and spend £6 for that privilege.

Bread, anchovies and butter served on a rock

There is only one meat option at Macellaio – the six-week aged beef ribs hanging in a fridge at the top of the dining room (£5.40/100g). They show you your cut after it’s been butchered so I presume it’s good quality meat, and certainly it looked red and healthy to me. After it’s been cooked it’s brought to your table (well, bench) with a bit too much fanfare as the waiters do a countdown and unveil the beef from under its serving platter lid.

Unfortunately the steak was not seared enough on the outside, presumably because the grill was not hot enough, and so was mostly grey and the fat not crispy enough. It was still a tender and pleasingly light-tasting bit of meat, and did have some crispy outside bits that were very enjoyable, but it felt like a bit of a waste. Unfortunately the chips that came with it were very bad, greasy with oil and again not cooked hot enough to be crunchy on the outside.

Having said that, the beef was surprisingly inexpensive in relative terms – Hawksmoor’s prime rib is £8.25/100g and compared to that (admittedly better-cooked) this did feel like it could be a decent deal. But if you’re serving a big piece of beef, and making it the centrepiece of your restaurant, you should get it right.

According to Ben the pissas – apparently the way Ligurians spell pizza – were better; crispily soaked in olive oil at the bottom, light and fluffy at the top, and topped with soft little lumps of tangy, yoghurty stracchino cheese (not mozzarella). They were also cheap at £6 each.

One other thing really annoyed me that I feel I should mention. Quite a few times the staff put their hands on my shoulder (eg when I was ordering), including at one point when the manager and I had had a misunderstanding about when we’d be sitting that I think he took a little personally. Maybe that’s fun in Italy, but it’s not fun for me.

Self-consciously upmarket, Macellaio felt a little bit like a Strada or ASK for people on City salaries. And it’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself or any of the food, or that with some improvement it could be quite a lot better. But at £71 for two under the discount, which would have been closer to £100 without, I just can’t really understand why, at those prices, I would want to go back.

Rating: No medals.

Kerb, Camden

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Even though I love street food, by which I mean stalls or vans that sell a very limited range of things for £5-10 apiece, it’s difficult to review. My favourite place for lunch in the world is Santana Grill, at Strutton Ground market near my office, which does some of the best burritos and tacos I’ve ever had, including in Mexico. But who wants to read a long review of a place you can’t really justify a trip to and you can’t actually eat at? That’s what the Straight Up London Food Map is for.

But the growth of permanent street food areas, where you can go all day any day, means a semi-review is justifiable. A fortnight ago I visited Dalston’s Street Feast for a Bleecker Street burger (yes, it is the best burger in London), and this week I visited the new Kerb in Camden. It’s a fairly tightly packed courtyard next to Camden Lock market, quite pretty and far away enough from the throng of the main street that you can move around easily enough. I first went as a guest of Kerb, and then went back on my own dollar a few days later. Here’s a brief review of some of the things I tried.

Mother Clucker

These breast strips are about 3"x1" in size

This place does three or four large chicken breast strips for £6, coated in batter and deep fried. The chicken is astonishingly moist – better by far than the strips at the otherwise-mighty Chick’n Sours – and the batter very crispy. I’m very impressed with the chicken here, which apparently is ‘tea brined’ and (probably because I’m a suggestable eejit) really did have a very enjoyable whiff of black tea. The massive difference between getting three and four strips is slightly annoying – four for £6 is a steal, three is decent value. Either way, this is tremendous fried chicken.

The Patate

I’d never tried a ‘beef bourguignon burger’ before and since the others online look absolutely nothing like The Patate’s (thank god) I’m pretty sure they can claim it as their invention. Basically, it’s quite dry beef bourguignon fried on a griddle with gravy poured over and eventually a slice of cheese (Raclette de Savoie, blue Fourme d’Ambert or cheddar) melted on the griddle and then placed on top. It’s quite a fun thing to eat because it feels unique, but I can’t say that I’d have it again – though it’s enjoyable the flavours are too bland for me, and ultimately it feels a little bit lacking.

Other Side

Other Side’s chicken breast was extremely crispily fried, decently moist (it’s stupid to compare something this size to Mother Clucker’s strips – you simply can’t get the same level of moistness because you have to cook it for longer), and dressed with some excellent homemade pickles and a generous slab of bacon.

But it also needed, I thought, more saucing. The smoked honey butter they brushed it with sounded amazing but I couldn’t really taste it, and I thought that even the buffalo burger that my friend had, with buffalo sauce squirted on from a bottle, seemed dry. They should try dunking the chicken in buffalo sauce and make the honey flavouring more pronounced because right now all the breading (on the bun and the chicken) just overwhelms the other flavours.

Oli Baba’s

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Halloumi fries are a very enjoyable idea, because even though you can buy a block of halloumi in Tesco Express for £1.79 it still feels like a bit of a treat. These are chip-sized bits deep fried to a golden semi-crisp, with a spongey inside and served with yoghurt, pomegranate molasses and seeds and mint leaves. It’s quite delicious – the yoghurt cuts through the saltiness of the halloumi and the pomegranate sweetness adds a nice extra dimension – but not really sustainable for a whole meal. Everyone I saw was getting a portion of fries between two, and one was enough for the two of us as a chaser to our Mother Clucker servings.

Overall

I also tried steak and chips from Steakhaus, but forgot to take a photo – it was OK, a decently seasoned bit of (I think) bavette steak, but nothing special. I’m not sure it makes sense to give a street food venue a rating, but there are enough places that looked nice that I’ll probably be back to try them. I don’t like Camden, but Kerb does make it quite a bit less terrible.

Bao, Fitzrovia

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Bao’s Soho branch was the first place I reviewed for Straight Up London and, unlike everyone else, I didn’t think too much of it. The queue was ludicrously long and the food just wasn’t that interesting.

Still, my girlfriend liked it and now that Bao has opened a second branch in Fitzrovia she wanted to go. The room is bigger and airier, with diner seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar looking out onto a quiet side-street. It’s very pleasant, and makes me feel as if I’m in Japan (though Bao is Taiwanese).

Bao’s menu is divided into three stages. Xiao chi (small eats) come first, then the bao, then the chi shiang rice bowls to fill you up at the end. You can also buy a £27 “limited edition” t-shirt if you like wasting money.

Preserved cabbage, corn with beef butter and prawn heads

Sweetcorn with “beef butter” was surprisingly delicious. The beef butter made the corn taste rich, savoury and meaty, and I gobbled it down. The prawn heads had been deep-fried to a crisp, and each bite was a burst of oily, fishy goodness. At £2 they felt like excellent value and I was tempted to order a second bowl.

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets were similar in principle to the Soho Bao’s pig trotter nuggets, but inside had big, half-melting chunks of tendon, which tastes halfway between fat and a very thick jelly with a meaty taste. The beef cheek would have been a little overpoweringly beefy if not for the acidity of the green chilli sauce they came with, which was literally finger-lickin’ good.

Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce
Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce

Our final small plate was duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce, which came sliced in half with a warm onion marmalade, spring onions and coriander on top. They were unbelievably tender and each one pretty much melted in your mouth as you ate them. The balance of the sweet marmalade and garlic sauce against the fresh sharpness of the onions and coriander was perfect. This was truly one of the nicest meat dishes I have had, up there with Silk Road’s barbecued lamb skewers for sheer pleasure.

Pork confit bao
Pork confit bao

Then came the bao, which after all this I was excited for. But, alas, they were basically the same as last time. Not bad, exactly, but just very boring. My pork confit bao’s fried onions went nicely with the sweet hot sauce and sliced of pork belly, but ultimately it all ended up tasting a bit too sweet and cloying. The buns themselves were fluffy and pillowy, but weren’t that special.

Classic bao
Classic bao

The ‘classic’ bao was better with a nice little heap of ground peanuts on top of warm preserved vegetables and bits of braised pork, but still didn’t really do much in the way of flavour. No doubt bao are a subtle dish that is lost on me, but I really don’t see the attraction, especially for £4-4.50 each. The lamb bao (not pictured) was much better, because the meat actually had a distinct flavour, and came with a fresh minty sauce.

Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl
Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl

We shared a rice bowl to finish, which was probably a mistake – it’s too awkward to share really. It was comfort food, with some small but thick slices of beef shortrib, an egg yolk and some beef ‘tea’ to pour over. Again, not very excitingly flavoured but the beef tea and egg stuck to fat grains of sushi rice and made it quite a nice way to end the meal. I wouldn’t mind a cheaper version with just the beef tea and the egg, though – the point is to fill up, and the other parts of the dish were unnecessary.

All told the bill came to £28 per head, which was not exactly cheap but didn’t feel like a rip-off given the variety of what we had, and the quality of some of it. Drinks are priced fairly extortionately, though – £4.50 is an absurd price for half a pint of Kernel table beer, as is £8 (!) for a 600ml bottle of Taiwan beer (I had a £4.50 stubbie can instead).

Overall my impression of Bao has changed a little. The bao themselves are still too bland and unremarkable to bother with, but the side plates are something else altogether. Bone Daddies opened Shakfuyu as a branch to sell its side plates on their own, which is certainly something Bao’s owners should consider. If I ever go back, I’ll stick with the prawn heads and duck hearts. Basically, Bao is great – if you skip the bao.

Rating: One medal (Two for the side plates, none for the bao).

Good Friend Chicken, Chinatown (née Bigbe Chicken)

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(Update, 25th August: Bigbe Chicken is now Good Friend Chicken, and has moved a couple of doors down. When I last went, it was much the same with an expanded menu and slightly higher prices of around 30p or so per item. The old favourites were still superb, but the squid, which I hadn’t tried before, was terrible. Other new items, like chicken necks, were OK but slightly awkward to eat. “Good Friend” is still great, but unless you’re feeling adventurous stick to the popcorn chicken and chicken breast.)

Bigbe Chicken is a small Taiwanese fried chicken shop in Chinatown that opened about three weeks ago. I heard about it from Lizzie’s Hollow Legs blog and visited it late one night after attending a film premiere around the corner.

Its menu is small and straightforward: three different kinds of chicken, deep fried squid, and some sweet potato fries. I went for the deep fried breast and a batch of popcorn chicken.

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The first thing you need to know is that the portions are enormous. I didn’t think the chicken breast’s £5.50 price was too bad to begin with, but once I saw that they were the size of a football hammered about half an inch thick I realised that I was on to a true bargain. Popcorn chicken was appreciably different, with a much greater batter to chicken ratio and fried for longer for a crispier shell.

All are topped with your choice of flavoured powders – I had ‘special pepper’ (Sichuan, I think) and chilli powder on my chicken breast and Thai seasoning on my popcorn. The pepper and chilli, recommended by our very chatty and friendly server Laura, was sweet and spicy, and soaked into the batter nicely. The Thai was maybe slightly underpowered for the popcorn chicken, whose batter was so thick it probably needed something punchier, but it was hardly a problem.

The chicken itself was magnificent. It was hot, crispy, salty, juicy and meaty, and the sheer pleasure of holding a giant piece of searingly hot chicken in your hands while you nibble off bits as it cools in your hands is hard to overstate. I can’t work out how it managed to stay so hot throughout me eating it but I’m happy to say that I didn’t burn my mouth.

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Popcorn chicken was perhaps even better. The thumb-sized pieces were fried to a perfect crunch and had, I think, a slightly more peppery batter than the breasts. The portion was about two fistfuls which, for £2.99, might be the best value for money food you can get anywhere in central London. The sweet potato fries I tried were also fried to a crisp, though in general I don’t really like sweet potato.

My friend had the drumstick, which was actually quite a big full leg with thigh attached, and looked like it had been cooked long or hot enough for the grease inside (a personal bugbear of mine) to melt away. I’m going back this weekend to try some off-menu things like chicken skin and parson’s nose, which I asked the owner about after reading about them in Lizzie’s review.

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I predict that quite soon Bigbe chicken will become so popular that you’ll have to queue around the block to get some. It deserves it. They have done something simple but new, and done it rather brilliantly at an unbelievably good price. My suggestion: get there before everyone else does.

Score: Two medals.

The Grey Horse, Kingston

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The Grey Horse is an unassuming pub a few minutes from Kingston train station that has been rebranded as a whiskey bar and barbecue restaurant. I was a little apprehensive about going, suffering from a sore throat and having had a pretty bad run of barbecue food over the past few weeks.

A bit like hamburgers, barbecue is a wonderful food type that has exploded in London in recent years, mostly for the best (Ben adored Soho’s Shotgun, and we both like Pitt Cue quite a lot) but producing more than its share of lazy cash-ins as well. The good barbecue places are good, but there is plenty of crap as well.

Happily, The Grey Horse falls into the former category, despite a few misfires. Its craft beer list is solid, though with perhaps a few too many basic IPA beers – if you have Sierra Nevada, there’s no need for Meantime IPA, Camden Pale and Goose Island as well. My Old Fashioned (£7) was nicely sweetened with a hint of maple from the rye whiskey.

Pumpkin chowder (£5) was creamy and rich, with big chunks of haddock and a generous pile of crispy fried leeks on top. It may be me, but I think chowder always needs hot sauce to give it a slightly vinegary taste at the back of your throat, but I have never seen this at a restaurant, so I can’t fault The Grey Horse.

The most serious failing of the meal was the chicken wings  (£6). Chicken wings are almost always done badly by British restaurants. It’s not hard: they should be crispy (cook them at a high temperature) and, if they are buffalo wings, coated in a mixture of melted butter and hot sauce (Frank’s or Crystal, for example). They should not be sugary, they should not be covered in a ketchup-like sauce, and they should absolutely not be soggy or slimy.

These weren’t the worst I’ve had, but they weren’t crispy and the ‘hot sauce’ was more like a sweet chilli sauce than I had expected or wanted. They were made with good chicken, though, so a few tweaks to the recipe could produce something special.

My Jacob’s Ladder beef rib (£16, but smaller, cheaper cuts were available), however, was superb. It was cooked perfectly: crispy on the outside, moist and pink inside, with thick veins of hot, melting fat that filled my mouth with flavour when I bit into them. The outside was only given a light coating of barbecue sauce, and none was provided for dipping, which proved to be a good thing. Such a good piece of meat deserves not to be overpowered by strong sauces. The side-dish of home-made pickles – red onions, cucumber and celery – was impressive too.

Macaroni and cheese is another dish that most restaurants mess up, usually by baking it for so long that all the moisture from the cheese sauce cooks into the macaroni. This was pleasantly creamy, if not quite gooey, but let down by not having any strong cheesy flavour. The sauce was apparently made with cheddar, Monterey jack and parmesan, but it needed something much sharper to give the kick that macaroni and cheese deserves. It had quite a nice truffley aftertaste, but I’m not sure why.

My companion had the 3 way smoked rib plate (£20), which as well as a slightly smaller beef rib had a small rack of pork ribs and an Iberico rib, and seemed like a generous serving. The Iberico rib was cured and coated in a sweet sauce that reminded me of a very succulent Christmas ham.

Deep-fried apple pie (£6) for dessert was basically a posh McDonald’s apple pie served with cinnamon ice cream. Since McDonald’s apple pies are close to perfection, it’s hard to say that this was an improvement on that, but its thick and soft pastry soaked up the ice cream and apple filling nicely.

I confess that I did not have high hopes for The Grey Horse, but it slowly won me over. Some of the menu needs work – chicken skin is a blessing, and a kitchen that does not cook it to crispness is committing a mortal sin. But in the main meat courses, where it really matters, it gets it right.

Rating: One medal.

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