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Sam Bowman

Sam Bowman has 28 articles published.

Review: Chik’n, Baker Street

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I’ve been back to Chik’n since the review below and tried out their chicken tenders (both spicy and regular style), chips, dips and a burger. The tenders were a lot better – extremely crispy but also juicy and flavoursome. The dips were served in very generous pots. Overall it is now probably a two medal spot, and I’ll be back.

This is a one medal review, which means if you like the sound of it, you should check it out, but don’t go out of your way for it. That sounds like faint praise, but there are so many restaurants out there, ones that charge fifty pounds a head plus wine, that can’t even manage that. It’s why fast food is such a wonderful thing: you know what you’ll get, more or less, and it’s cheap. I am a fast food fan – I understand that and why others don’t think much of it, but to me it’s often difficult to beat the simple deliciousness of a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, or a KFC Hot Wing.

Of course, a lot of fast food sucks. Chik’n is an attempt by Chick ‘n’ Sours to get into that scene and do fast food that has the quality of its food at its ‘parent’ branches. (Annoyingly, Chik’n and Chick ‘n’ Sours have inconsistent spellings of the word “chicken”.) I adored Chick ‘n’ Sours’s original Haggerston restaurant, but always felt that the Covent Garden branch wasn’t quite as good. Chik’n is, I presume (and hope), the prototype for more stores.

The menu is basically a stripped-down version of the Chick ‘n’ Sours menu. No sichuan aubergine or chicken nacho chips, and crucially no whole pieces of chicken thigh or breast. But there are chicken sandwiches, tenders and wings, and all at pretty reasonable prices.

Here’s what I had, and what I thought of each:

  • Straight Up Chik’n sandwich: Tasted good, but let down by texture. Not enough mayo, chicken was too dry, and too much bun. Just too dry overall. I’d have preferred if it was buttered like a Chick Fil A bun, or maybe even steamed like a Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s.
  • Tenders: Good. Not as juicy as a KFC chicken tender, but far crispier, and well-seasoned. Carried the dip well. Maybe for the price they should be bigger, or you should get one more.
  • Wings: Excellently cooked for breaded wings, which are often soft or soggy. They were enormous as well – bigger than the McDonald’s Mighty Wings that were famously huge in the US. But the seasoning could have been better (KFC Hot Wings are the ones to beat here) and, annoyingly, they were so big that I couldn’t fit them in to the dip tub.
  • Blue cheese dip: Delicious and brilliantly cheap at 20p for a tub. It is so blue cheesy, it’s really a pleasure to eat at a place like this. But the tub was small, and I wanted more. They should just double the size and price.
  • Fries: Fine. Maybe good if there’d been more dip, or if you don’t like chicken. Don’t bother otherwise.

The restaurant is similar in feel to a burrito place like a Chilango – it’s not quite as low-rent as a McDonald’s or KFC, but it looks easy to wipe down with a cloth all the same. There’s a sink, so you can wash your hands when you’re done (nice touch), and there was plenty of space to sit when I went on a weekday lunchtime.

Most importantly, they have managed to recreate the ungreasy crispiness that makes their chicken special, and if they can do it at scale and in many different places and sort out my minor complaints this will be clearly superior to KFC. I’ll go again and try a different sandwich. At worst, I’ll order an extra tub of blue cheese dip and pour it on one myself.

Rating: One medal.

Review: Tea Room at Bun House, Soho

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What’s worse than a place with no redeeming qualities? A place with plenty of redeeming qualities that still doesn’t hit the mark. Tea Room, the cocktail bar below Bun House at the corner of Greek Street in Soho, ticks some of the right boxes – it’s difficult to beat the aesthetic of mid-century China, a cross between 1960s Hong Kong and 1930s Shanghai, and a few of the dishes are good enough to justify their hefty price tags. But overall, Tea Room just doesn’t do what it needs to do to work.

The drinks menu really is gorgeous, a pastiche of an old Chinese newspaper with false adverts for airlines advertising baijiu, the Chinese national spirit, and an impressive list of rice wines. At six pounds a bottle, beers were only really worthwhile because they’re all obscure (to me, at least) Chinese brands. But the ambiance isn’t good enough to justify paying £12 a cocktail – the decor is mostly right, but it’s too bright, too cramped and too uncomfortable to spend a night drinking cocktails there. The tables and chairs were about as cosy as a plush McDonalds’s, which is tolerable for food but not exactly where you’d want to spend a whole evening over drinks. It’s just not intimate the way a good cocktail bar needs to be.

On to the food, then – Tea Room sits beneath the casual steamed bun place Bun House, with a full menu of its own. Our house pickles (£4) were well-made and generously portioned, compared to some cheeky places that seem to think they can make up their margins by saving on daikon radish.

The dry fried asparagus with cloud ear mushroom was just pointless – it was exactly what it sounds like, with no more than a bit of celery to give it flavour. My companion charitably suggested that it needed salt, but the truth was that it was a stir fry of three not very interesting vegetables and nothing else. For four pounds, I would be a bit disappointed; for the £8 that it was, I felt positively ripped off. Eventually we poured some of the soy sauce from another dish into it to give it at least some flavour.

Lacey dumplings (£9) were far better – five soft pork and prawn dumplings hanging off the underside of a a crispy fried pancake, which added a crunchy texture to the dumplings that came with it. The dumplings themselves were not outstanding, but they were well-filled and seasoned, and the combination of textures was enjoyable and new to me.

Paying £14 for what was, essentially, a bowl of rice, aubergine and minced pork was not fun. Fish fragrant aubergine is a marvellous dish that takes one of the worst vegetables and, through the magic of chinese vinegars and spices, turns it into something rich and savoury that is unlike any other meal. This was like that, but if an accountant had made it. What am I paying for in a dish that is 80% rice, 15% aubergine and 5% pork mince? How does someone justify charging £14 for that? I can only assume that, like the similar nearby restaurant Xu, these rice dishes are how the money is made. No thanks.

Our plate of barbecued meat skewers (£3 each), cooked with chili, cumin, and salt, was far better. My favourite was the chicken gizzards, but the lamb shoulder and chicken thighs also worked well. The pork belly was forgettable – cumin and chili, which gave the other meats their flavour, may not work so well with pork, and this tasted sweeter like it was cooked with sugar too. But Kiln’s skewers are cheaper and Silk Road’s are better seasoned, and both taste like they’re actually sizzling from the coals and not like they’ve been kept under a heat lamp for ten minutes. Barbecued skewered meat should be threaded with crispy, molten fat, and these weren’t.

Only one dish really stood out as being truly excellent and, amazingly, somewhat good value for the price (£15). The sugar skin iberico pork char siu had stunningly crispy, sweet roasted skin, and the thick veins of fat inside were as delicious as good pork should always be. Every bite was a little explosion of crunchy sweetness that gave way to rich, porky fatty flavour. It was even quite a generous portion that left two hungry people satisfied.

Overall, though, I cannot recommend Tea Room. Unless you are a die-hard fan of 1960s East Asian pop music (and who isn’t, to some extent?), or you are seriously stuck for dinner in central Soho with someone you want to impress, there is better food like this around and for a better price. Everything seemed to be about 25-30% more expensive than it should be – if that bill had been £30/head instead of £40/head, the whole experience might have been much more satisfying.

I appreciate that a location like this – maybe the most central location in Soho – isn’t cheap, but that’s no reason for me to go there. The style is beautiful, but let down by the atmosphere. And the food is uneven at best, made worse by the price.

Rating: No medals.

Sorry the photos are all a bit discoloured. I sat below some green neon lights.

Review: Daddy Bao, Tooting

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I went to Daddy Bao hoping to not like it, for the sake of making this blog a little more diverse. After a string of two medal reviews I’ve begun to wonder if I’m getting good at avoiding dud restaurants, which is great for me but might be a bit boring to read. It’s the hatchet jobs that are fun to read, or at least the mild deviations from the critical consensus.

And I’ve never really understood the point of bao – soft, pillowy steamed buns from Taiwan that have grown and grown in popularity since Flesh and Buns first brought them to real prominence in 2014. The most highly praised place doing them, Bao, left me underwhelmed. I liked the starters there, but the bao themselves just seemed fine, but dull and expensive.

Daddy Bao is the new offspring of Peckham’s Mr Bao, both doing much the same as Bao and Flesh and Buns. The room is that kitsch 1920s Chinese style that I love. The menu is short and simple, with most bao going for £4.50 each or less. Three cocktails for £7 each are ‘Chinese’ twists on classics – we had the plum wine negroni (exactly what it sounds like – a slightly mellower negroni with a strong plum aroma) and lychee daquiri (which I’m told was excellent).

To start, we got the kimchi, sesame aubergine, fried chicken and pork dumplings. These were good, apart from the kimchi, which was boring. The aubergine’s sesame sauce and bits of pomegranate gave it a powerful flavour kick with bursts of sourness, and the pork dumplings’ skin was impressively delicate – impressive to someone used to the cheap, cheerful and chubby dumplings from Silk Road, anyway.

The fried chicken was crisp, generously portioned, and well-seasoned. The ketchup-hoisin style sauce it came from wasn’t much like “miso mayo” as advertised on the menu, but probably for the better. I would have been quite happy to have had three or four servings of that and be done with it.

As for the bao themselves, while I admit that I still am slightly lost by the fuss around them in general, these were quite enjoyable, and unlike the more upmarket place Bao, they were quite generously-sized.

The best was the “Mr Bao Pork Belly” one which had crunchy bits of peanut and lots of coriander and pickles as well as a generous slice of braised pork belly. Big brash flavours like that go well with the sweet softness of the bun, and make the whole thing feel like a sort of savoury dessert that you’re very naughty to eat as dinner.

The prawn one was less good, because it was too carby (prawns in batter surrounded by bun = a lot of starch) and not punchy enough flavourwise. The beef brisket and coleslaw (for that was what it was – calling it “wasabi slaw” might make them feel better about it, but it doesn’t fool me) bun was weird, like something that had crawled down the Northern Line from Bodean’s into this Asian restaurant, but overall it worked. All this food was at its best with big flavours, and not trying the sort of boring ‘subtlety’ that turned me off bao at other places.

Mostly they were what I wanted them to be – big, sweet, chewy, flavoursome and indulgent. And cheap: including cocktails, our dinner for two came to £50, and we were both stuffed. A good meal, in a nice place, for a decent price. How disappointing.

Rating: One medal.

 

Review: Knife, Clapham

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The really big names in London restaurants, the ones everybody knows, are all steak places – Gaucho, Goodman, Hawksmoor. Apart from a few new challengers like Flat Iron, which I maintain is a triumph of economics and supply chain management above all else, it’s not always clear where you’d go for a good steak apart from one of those famous, expensive, and occasionally disappointing spots.

Knife, situated halfway between Clapham Common and Brixton High Street, is a surprising addition to this roster. It’s slightly out of the way on a street that is mostly residential, and I hadn’t seen it reviewed anywhere else. If it hadn’t been for its nomination in this year’s Harden’s London Restaurant Awards I doubt I would ever have heard of it at all, even though I live 20 minutes’ walk away.

I was assured by Ben, who spotted it, that being supplied by Lake District Farmers – who are so elite among butchers that they have to choose which London restaurants they supply from a select lottery – was a very good sign. And, after a booking process that seemed to imply a place in high demand, showing up to an empty restaurant at 7pm things felt a little strange.

But still, the early signs were good. Two bread rolls came hot from the oven with bone marrow butter, one brown with sesame seeds and one a salty, savoury rosemary and anchovy focaccia that I could have happily eaten more and more of until I was full. Very nice – and then a second plate of free welcome food came out, five golf ball-sized Yorkshire puddings with a little pot of gravy. The puds were crispy and chewy, just the way you want them.

Our heritage tomato starter (£6.50), served with basil, peach and bits of burrata cheese, did the job well. The peach was somewhat superfluous but every forkful of cheese, tomato, basil, olive oil and salt felt like the last day of summer, with tomatoes as flavoursome as you can get in England. But the real star was the oxtail with shallot puree, spring greens and stilton croquette (£7.50). Every part of this worked perfectly, with the savoury, sinewy meat of the oxtail being balanced by the sweetness of the shallots, and punched through with the stilton cheese. We more or less licked the plate clean so we didn’t miss a single drop of puree or meat.

Beef dripping chips (£4.50) were so enormous that calling them chips is a little misleading, but they were perfectly crunchy, fatty, salty and potatoey all the same. The perfect dip for chips, in my view, is bearnaise sauce, and Knife’s was freshly-made and pleasantly subtly flavoured. The one major misfire in the whole meal was the Stinking Bishop mac and cheese (£4.50), which I should have known would be disappointing (like buffalo wings, British restaurants cannot do mac and cheese for some reason) but really was a bit of a drag. We left most of it – it was just not creamy enough and too underpowered for a dish made with Stinking Bishop cheese. My suggestion to Knife and everyone else: stop trying to go for a crust by baking the mac and cheese, which if made in advance means the moisture is all absorbed by the macaroni, and make something like this instead.

But the star, of course, was the steak. The rib eye (£25.00) was cooked with astonishing skill, rare in the middle but utterly crisp and rendered on the edges. The interior meat was succulent and intensely flavoured, and barely needed any sauce to go alongside it. Still, the spinach, garlic, caper & anchovy puree served with the steaks was a marvellously sharp, umami accompaniment that brought out the flavours of the steak.

The £16.50 Holstein bavette steak (from former dairy cows, unusually) was less stunningly delicious but far better than almost any other steak you’d get almost anywhere else; it’s not quite priced to compete with Flat Iron but for a small amount more the quality was in another league. Both managed to be tender but maintain a bit of chew, which is just what I want from a steak. One minor complaint was that our steak was served rare, not medium rare as we asked. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, because I like it both ways, but the people beside us seemed to have a similar problem. It’s not a major crime, and they did re-do our neighbours’ steak when they asked, but it’s a bad habit for a steak restaurant to get into, even if you think serving the meat rare is best.

But never mind that. By the time we settled up, the restaurant was full and buzzing with people. At £86 for two, including drinks and service, for high quality ingredients, so skilfully made, Knife is something special.

Rating: Two medals.

Review: Smoke and Salt, Brixton

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I’ve written before about how Brixton sits a little uncomfortably when it comes to food and drink. It’s really not great considering how many options there are – it does the basics fine but it has none of the variety or spark of Dalston or the homeliness of Tooting. It’s miles ahead of Clapham, but I tend to think that people try to imagine that Brixton is something more than it truly is.

Pop Brixton, a container park that opened around the same time I moved here in 2015, has improved things quite a bit. I raved about Kricket when it was based there (and which is even better at its new home in Piccadilly), Koi Ramen is for my money the best ramen I’ve had outside of Asia and jaw-droppingly cheap at £6.50 for a bowl of tonkotsu, and I’m told the Ghanaian and Basque restaurants are very good too.

Smoke and Salt has moved in to Kricket’s old container and pitches itself as doing modern British food using ancient techniques – pickling, curing, smoking and roasting. After our run-in with failing chef Neil Rankin, some of Smoke and Salt’s fans suggested we try them out for a more generously portioned meal.

The whole place is crammed into a single shipping container, kitchen and all, and on a rainy day could only seat about eighteen people until the sun came out. As ever, I appreciated the bottles of tap water already set out at the tables. Drinks were priced reasonably (cocktails £7.50, beers and wine £4.50-5) and our Boston sours (whiskey sours with extra egg white) were well flavoured.

Whipped miso-infused butter was salty and savoury, if slightly underportioned for the five large slices of warm sourdough we were served (£2.50). The bread was decent but denser than I like – probably not left to rise for long enough prior to baking. But the fried plantain (£4) was the first real sign that this meal would be a treat. Crispy spears were sprinkled with chili flakes and salt, which offset the sweetness of the fruit, and served with an onion jam for dipping that wasn’t far off a sweetened, condensed French onion soup in flavour. Little leaves of fresh oregano gave the dish a wonderful smell and showed an admirable attention to detail.

We went for the beef heart slices supplement to the the new potatoes with chimichurri and gorgonzola (£4 plus £3 for the beef). This heaping mound of fried potato, meat, cheese sauce and herbs was the size of some main courses I’ve had recently. The potatoes had the earthy, creamy flavour of good Jersey Royals, and combining a sharp chimichurri with a rich blue cheese sauce balanced the flavours perfectly. Beef heart is not to everyone’s taste – it’s slightly rubbery and easily overcooked – but this was sliced thinly enough that small bits added meatiness to each mouthful. This might have been a summer dish but on a cold, rainy evening it was the ideal comfort food.

Cold grilled courgettes (£6), served with a thick dressing and sprinkled with seeds and walnuts, did not work as well. Texturally it was interesting enough, but after the flavours of the first two dishes, it fell short.

Never mind – the charred coley (£8) afterwards made up for it. This was slow-cooked in olive oil and done to perfection – to just the point of being cooked, without losing any moisture or firmness at all. This came with a crust of toasted hazelnuts and in a thin green sauce, which I guess from the menu was made from toasted garlic, but was indeterminately flavoured to me. Well-cooked fish is ridiculously hard to find, and I savoured every little bite. And it was a pretty decent sized bit of fish for eight quid too!

Miso and honey glazed lamb belly (£10) was, again, cooked perfectly with melting fat and falling-apart meat that was cut through by the sharp lemony pea salad served alongside. In some ways this summed up the meal – delicately-cooked meat with carefully-balanced flavours that complimented each other without being boring or unoriginal. The one misfire of the meal was the grilled hispi cabbage (£6) which came with a ‘smoky tofu dressing’ that more resembled Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and dominated all the other Asian-inflected elements of the dish, even the tasty little pickled peanuts.

By that point, though, both my companion and I were full anyway. And I don’t mind at all a weird, experimental dish that doesn’t work out if it only adds six pounds to the bill. How could you, in a place like Smoke and Salt? It’s innovative, generously-portioned food that manages to win on flavour and treats good ingredients with the careful cooking they deserve. And at £65 for two, including cocktails and service, it makes Smoke and Salt an immediate favourite of mine, and a jewel in Brixton’s restaurant scene.

Rating: Two medals.

Review: Butchers Korean BBQ, New Malden

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If you ever find yourself in New Malden in South West London, a little town in between Wimbledon and Kingston, there are two things you should do. One, go to one of the gigantic Korean supermarkets and stock up on Asian food supplies – they have frozen chopped Filipino pig intestines, fresh kaffir lime leaves, and more space devoted to ramen than most Tescos give to breakfast cereal. Two, have some Korean barbecue.

The area is as close to a ‘Koreatown’ as London gets, and lots of shops have bilingual store fronts. Because it’s out in the suburbs the prices are as low as you’re going to get for grilled steak cuts, and it’s always enjoyable eating in a restaurant where you feel like a bit of a tourist.

I don’t know if Butcher BBQ is the best in New Malden but it’s the one that people tell you to go to. From the outside it looks closed, and it’s easy to miss as you walk down the high street. Inside it’s a utilitarian space with only about half a dozen tables and benches to eat at.

The menu is pretty big, but we’re only there for barbecue. If you haven’t had it before, Korean barbecue is cooked at your table, by yourself if you like or, if you’re like me, by the restaurant owner who gets frustrated at your ineptitude.

You can order item-by-item but a combo with brisket, bavette steak and rib-eye (£50 for two) seemed fine to me. Bowls of side-dishes come out – home-made kimchi, onions in a sweet vinegar (surprisingly delicious), radish in chilli sauce, and shredded spring onions with chilli, which we ordered separately.

With Korean barbecue the trick, apparently, is to make yourself little lettuce wraps with meat, soy bean paste and whatever else you fancy.

You don’t get an enormous amount of meat. The photo above is a little misleading, because the folded up brisket at the front is sliced wafer-thin. But it’s good meat, well-marbled, and barbecues well once the grill’s been heated and oiled a bit with a piece of pork fat.

My wraps are mostly a success.

The soy bean paste, in particular, is extremely moreish. It’s umami with some sweetness and adds some extra flavour to what is otherwise just a bit of meat, and especially for the chewier, stronger-tasting bavette steak it gives a bit of balance to the tastes. It can be a little awkward trying to bite off a chunk of the meat with your teeth, but eating with your hands is fun overall.

You’re never going to want Korean barbecue more than once a year, I suspect. It tastes pretty good, but there just isn’t that much to it. That said, the fun and novelty of grilling your food at your table while drinking Korean beer is just very pleasant. For tourism value alone, Butcher BBQ and New Malden are worth your time.

Rating: One medal.

Review: The Other Naughty Piglet, Victoria

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Victoria has been on a quiet rise lately, with more and more good places opening up to capture some of that civil service dollar. Where a few good spots on Wilton Road like A Wong and About Thyme used to compete with the likes of Loco Mexicano and an all-you-can-eat Brazilian meat place (terrible, but my secret shame), now the likes of Bleecker Street Burger, Shake Shack and Bone Daddies are opening to turn the area into a pretty decent place to eat.

The main downside is that these are all chains, and for some diminishing returns seem to be setting in so that each new restaurant seems a little worse than the last – that means you, Franco Manca.

Enter The Other Naughty Piglet. Branch two of Brixton’s The Naughty Piglet, located upstairs at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatre The Other Palace, it has the air of any upmarket theatre cafe or restaurant – airy, open and bright with tables squeezed just a little bit too close together for comfort, and a seasonal ‘modern European’ menu.

Small plates come one-by-one for sharing and give the feel of a tasting menu with fewer airs and graces. Our ham croquettes (£2/each) were hot and gooey, with (I think) manchego cheese mixed in with a bechamel and nibbly bits of ham. I wished I’d ordered more than one each.

Datterini tomatoes (£6) came with a generous topping of feta cheese and a japanese dried chili powder, and though I couldn’t really taste the chili, the tomatoes were sweet and fragrant and a good match for quite a mild feta. Each bite was a little burst of summery flavour, helped along by a little coriander included in the greens on top.

Burrata (like mozzarella with a creamy cottage cheese-style centre) with confit onions (£9) was a smart pairing, with gently fried onions giving each mouthful three or four different textures at once. Both the onions and the burrata came in generous portions, even between two people, and the soft creaminess of dish gave it the feel of a summery comfort food.

The real highlight of the meal was Cornish mackerel with gooseberries, cherries and English mustard (£8), served in a sweet juice that I presume was from the gooseberries. The mackerel was tip-top: firm, moist without being too oily, with a powerfully mackerelly flavour that still avoided being too pungent. The mustard was a nice touch but the sweet juice and gooseberries were the real stars; this sweet/sour pairing with mackerel is really hard to beat. The whole menu is clearly built around creating food pairings, and in some cases like this one it works spectacularly well.

Black pudding with grilled nectarine (£9) came topped with chewy, fibrous greens (bean casings, apparently) that nevertheless gave some toughness and texture to two other squishy ingredients. This kind of upmarket black pudding that contains minimal barley is not my favourite, but the flavour was good and the pairing with warm nectarine was clever, balancing the black pudding’s strong savouriness. The plating (off to one side of a large plate, as above) was a little silly but hey – the dish itself packed a flavour and texture punch and, once again, created a brilliant combination that I haven’t ever tasted before.

Our last dish took some time to arrive and was somewhat underwhelming. Barbecued pork belly with hispi cabbage (£11) was served with quite an interesting Korean-style gochujang chili sauce, but was overall a bit of a let down – not bad by any means but boring compared to the rest of the food, and not quite substantial enough to justify its price tag. Still, the pork was cooked well and it tasted nice – it’s just that in the context of the rest of the meal, it felt less innovative than usual.

The bill was over £100 for a fairly boozy meal, but the food only came to £53 in total for two, including service. For food of this quality and prepared this well, that’s a steal. The one fly in the ointment is the wine list, whose cheapest bottle was £29 – apparently it is all ‘natural wine’, which I couldn’t care less about and don’t really appreciate having to spend an extra ten pounds over a normal bottle on.

It’s hard to find superb ingredients paired together creatively and with such boldness. Food that is both delicious and interesting is rare enough anywhere. And in the somewhat one-track Victoria, as much as it has improved lately, The Other Naughty Piglet stands apart.

Rating: Two medals.

Review: 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.

Review: 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.

Review: 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.)

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