Sam Bowman

Sam Bowman has 32 articles published.

Two Lights, Shoreditch

in Restaurants

“Modern British” food is supposed to be the fusion of traditional British ingredients and dishes with new flavours and ways of cooking. Well, maybe. For me, it’s more of an “I know it when I see it” thing.

The “modern American” done by Shoreditch’s Two Lights, allegedly, is harder to place. Pickles, fried chicken, yes – but smoked pigeon or cod and beans? I’m not so sure.

Theming aside, the menu is glorious: pretty much every dish sounds interesting and delicious, and it’s hard to pick just two from each category.

We started with superb negronis, with a lingering, enjoyably medicinal flavour that I can only assume is down to better vermouth than I use at home. The snacks we got with them were small but well-formed. Potato rolls were pillowy and dense, with a chewiness that was a welcome break from the sourdough that is normally ubiquitous at places like this.

Crab was served on a thick, crisp chip with some pickled elderflower on top, and although it wasn’t spectacular (the mayonnaise the crab was dressed in dominated too much) it was a pleasant few bites.

Our first starter was a pile of pickled chanterelle mushrooms and an egg yolk on another well-cooked piece of bread – this time a soft flatbread with some runny Tunworth cheese on top that I didn’t really notice at the time. The bread mopped up the runny yolk and complemented the acidity and umami of the mushrooms perfectly. It was a superb dish.

Mussels, roasted red pepper and lardo on sourdough toast was good too, if a little underflavoured compared to the promise of those ingredients. The mussels were fat and juicy, but the peppers and lardo got a little lost.

Our first main, a grilled Middlewhite pork chop, came topped with kale, grilled green peppers and fried shallots, topped with an anchovy butter. Although it was a little fatty, the fat had the flavour and density that good pork fat does. The meat itself was slightly pink, and carried the punchy green pepper and anchovy flavours beautifully. It was a generous portion too.

The second was even better. The roasted ray wing was the star of the show, and got a special frame on the menu, and deservedly so. It was cooked to perfection: crispy on the outside and around the edges, and soft, moist and near-translucent inside. The mound of pickles, dill and fried potato it came with and the dill-inflected butter sauce it was served in were just the right level of sharpness to balance the fish without overwhelming it.

Alongside these two generous portions were remarkably large sides of crunchy roasted new potatoes and an enormous green salad. The potatoes came swimming in garlicky butter and the salad – something I would never normally notice no matter how good it was – was dressed incredibly well, with a good coating of vinaigrette on every leaf.

To finish, we had peach tarte tatin with ice cream and fig granita. Both were excellent: my companion thought the granita was one of the best desserts she’d ever had.

Coming as a spin-off from the excellent and well-regarded Clove Club, just around the corner, it’s hardly a surprise that Two Lights can pull off these dishes so well. But unlike the somewhat stiff Clove Club, Two Lights feels incredibly casual and relaxed: the dining room, filled with houseplants, could be someone’s sitting room.

The harshest criticism I can make of the food is that some dishes were a little underpowered, but that’s a minor quibble against the innovativeness of most of them, the generous portions, and the feeling of deep satisfaction I felt at the end of the meal. I can’t wait to go back.

Rating: Two medals.

I was invited to Two Lights and didn’t see a bill for my meal, but I’ll happy be paying to come again.

Review: The Begging Bowl, Peckham

in Restaurants

The Begging Bowl was one of the first really high-quality Thai restaurants in London, since joined by places like Som Saa, Kiln and The Smoking Goat, which have brought some of the flavours of Thailand’s north alongside the curries and bright, fresh salads most of us are more familiar with. These northern flavours often centre on pla ra, a fermented fish sauce that can have an off-putting rotten smell, but makes up for it with a richly savoury taste that can stand up to the other flavours that usually dominate Thai cooking.

After a major renovation last year, the Begging Bowl is bright and airy, and sits in a cluster of shops of restaurants that feel more like an English country town than a Peckham backstreet. The menu is geared towards fish and vegetarian dishes, with unlimited rice for £3 per person.

Dishes come out in the order they’re made in, so our first was the parlow, a braise of shiitake, oyster and enoki mushrooms served in a five spice broth. The broth was exceptionally tasty, mixing five spice sweetness with the incredibly rich umami flavours of the mushrooms, and with a transluscent egg along the lines of a bowl of ramen. Although the dish itself was quite small for its £13 price tag, the broth was flavoursome enough to bear a whole bowl’s worth of sticky rice being dipped in.

Next up were the green papaya fritters (£7). These had the texture of onion bhajis, and came with a dipping sauce made with peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli – a deconstructed som tam. The portion was generous and fun to pick apart and eat with your hands. I’m not sure it fully worked compared to a straightforward som tam, but I appreciated the fact that they were experimenting.

The isaan style pork and papaya soup with dill (£8) was more like a curry in consistency, and used the fermented fish flavouring to create an earthy, salty sauce that the dill offset nicely. Again, the unlimited rice was great for soakage, and the fishy sediment in the sauce gave it an enjoyably gritty texture.

The Northern Thai sausage (£10) was the lowlight of the meal. It wasn’t terrible, but served by itself (with some herbs and sliced ginger) it was just boring. It felt like it might have been a nice ingredient in a bigger dish, with some warmth from the chilli, and roughly ground mince and streaks of fat inside, but on its own it wasn’t impressive at all.

Perhaps my favourite dish anywhere is Som Saa’s deep fried sea bass, which they serve with a jaew-like sauce of lime juice, fish sauce, chilli and coriander. It’s a joy to pick off the crispy bits of skin and flesh and soak up the sauce. The Begging Bowl’s answer to this (£18) is quite different: instead of lime juice and coriander, the sea bass is served in a tangy and spicy tamarind sauce, with a mango salad. The sweetness from the mango balanced the tamarind’s sourness well, although if I was nitpicking I thought these flavours overpowered the fish somewhat. The fish itself was fresh and fleshy, sacrificing some level of crispiness for a more moist interior.

Finally, and unnecessarily given how full we already were, we had nam prik long rua (£10), a relish made from fermented shrimp and crisp pieces of pork belly, served with vegetables and a grilled sardine for dipping. We’d been warned that this was quite an intense dish, and I enjoyed the overpowering salty fishiness of it with the sardine, but coming at the end of the meal when we were already full up it didn’t really stand out. It might have made more sense to serve this kind of raw vegetable-based dish near the beginning of the meal.

At £105 including drinks and an affogato for dessert, our meal was good value and generously portioned, and we could easily have done without one of the dishes. The pricing seemed quite random: the sausage and nam prik long rua both seemed overpriced at £10, and the pork and papaya soup was cheap at £8. Despite a few misfires, the best dishes – the sea bass, the soup, and the mushroom braise – were outstanding, and a match for almost anything any other good Thai place can do.

Rating: One medal.

Review: Orange Buffalo, Tooting

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For some reason, London’s restaurants find it extremely difficult to do good buffalo wings. No matter how good somewhere is in other respects, their wings will likely be slimy, soft and coated in some sweet, sickly, tomato-based sauce.

I have no idea why this is. Buffalo wings in America, even at chain restaurants and dive bars, are usually pretty good. They’re easy to do at home, if you have a deep fat frier or don’t mind improvising with a cast iron pot.

All you want is for them to be crispy (this is essential), hopefully somewhat meaty inside, and coated in a simple sauce of Frank’s (or, even better, Crystal) hot sauce mixed with melted butter. Kenji’s method is pretty foolproof, and involves cooking them twice – the first time, at a low heat, can be done in advance so you only need to give them a short time in a screamingly hot frier to get them nice and crispy outside.

I am so obsessed with London’s shoddy wings I’ve considered doing a piece naming and shaming the worst places, and investigating what it is that they get wrong. Do they only cook them once, at too low a temperature? Is the sauce the way it is for cost-cutting reasons, because Frank’s costs too much, or because other customers want something closer to a spicy marinara sauce than the simpler, traditional, vinegary one? Who knows. I don’t even want to begin thinking about why so many places think putting breadcrumbs on wings is a smart move – too much KFC, I guess. And why on earth is anywhere so lazy as to serve the wings unjointed, let alone with the inedible wingtips left on? This last one is invariably a sign of a lazy, cynical restaurant that should be avoided at all costs.

There are some exceptions. Stickywings on Brick Lane has done a valiant job for a few years now, sacrificing some meatiness for crispiness (a reasonable trade-off) but giving a good, traditional sauce. Thunderbird, despite breading its wings, is OK if you’re in the neighbourhood, and at least serves generously large wings. The original Meatliquour and Meatmission do decent wings as sides, although I can’t comment on the dozens of new Meatliquour branches that have sprung up in the past few years.

Now Orange Buffalo has set up a fixed restaurant, after seven years operating out of a foodtruck in Spitalfields. Sat on a corner in Tooting between a McDonald’s and the Gala Bingo Club, it is a bright, loud fast food outlet with no pretension.

Some of the six sauces are available to sample before you order: as well as two heat levels of their main sauce, we tried a gochujang-based Korean sauce and a chilli-mango sauce. There’s also a barbecue sauce and a sauce advertised as being excruciatingly hot, but I don’t know why you’d want either of those.

The standard portion is eight wings for £8, which is a little mean considering the per item cost cannot be more than a few pence each. A kilo of wings is £1.70 at Sainsbury’s – Orange Buffalo’s may be better quality, but this feels unnecessarily stingy, especially for a dish that many restaurants manage to offer in unlimited quantities. You can add up to six more wings for 50p each.

The wings themselves were cooked excellently. The skin was perfectly crispy, with plenty of knobbly, crispy bits outside, and hot, juicy meat inside. They were slightly larger than usual (which might account for the price, to some extent), and retained their crispiness as they cooled down while we ate through them.

The sauces were good. The original was slightly too thick for my liking, and I would have liked an option to have a simple hot sauce and butter coating, but it tasted good and, texture aside, was fairly close to what I wanted. The hotter “woof woof” flavour was moderately hot, but not unenjoyably so. Surprisingly, the Korean coating was probably the best of the bunch – it was savoury, somewhat hot, and the coriander on top added some freshness to it.

The ranch dressing dip was fairly standard ranch, which is no bad thing – it’s hard to beat the flavour of dill and sour cream/buttermilk with hot wings. But the blue cheese dip was really weird – it barely tasted of blue cheese at all, with no tang or funkiness I’d expect, and had the consistency of egg mayonnaise. A disappointment that I would avoid in future.

There were a few minor issues with the service: the guy taking our order wasn’t really listening to us when we ordered so didn’t take down that we wanted the six extra wings (I realised later on and we were able to add them), and they were served without dips and I had to go back downstairs to get them. Obviously these are not a big deal, but the restaurant was not busy and it’s kind of annoying anyway.

Overall, Orange Buffalo’s wings slightly edge out Stickywings for being the best buffalo wings you can get in London. While they lose a few marks for not offering a traditional buffalo sauce and for serving too few, to my mind, for the price, they are the best-cooked wings you can get without flying to the US.

Rating: One medal.

Review: The Laughing Heart, Hackney

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I will probably never really appreciate wine the same way some other people do. There are now some excellent resources, like Josh’s Wine List, for people who want to be able to differentiate between different types of wine and figure out what they like, without spending a fortune. But I can never really detect much of a difference between a wine that costs £7 a bottle in a shop and a wine that costs £30, and I’d much rather try, say, an interesting sour beer anyway.

Because of this, The Laughing Heart on Hackney Road was never going to be as big a hit with me as it is with many people, particularly people in the restaurant trade. The wine list is long, and expensive – the cheapest bottles start at £30, but the majority cost between £45 and £70.

The menu, though, is fairly standard for a mid-market London restaurant these days, with a few Chinese influences on an otherwise solidly “modern British” selection. Small plates for sharing, divided roughly into what might count as snacks, starters, mains and desserts, as well as something called ‘Lost Souls in a Bowl’, a scallop dish our waiter told us was the head chef’s winning dish on the Great British Menu earlier this year (this season was pop music-themed – a little bit easier going than last year’s pious, manipulative NHS theme).

We skipped that but ordered all the snacks. The sourdough (£3.50) was dense and chewy but with a good, thick crust, and the cultured butter as good as any. Chicken liver pate (£6) was moussey, served with a crispy flatbread that didn’t get in the way of the flavours and a black garlic paste that added a subtle sweet taste.

Beef skewers with cep mushrooms were small for the £7 we paid. The beef was a little chewier than I’d have liked, but the mushrooms gave the same smokey, earthy flavour that I associate with shiitakes, and added something interesting to the flavour of the meat. 

The biggest misfire was the pig’s ear, trotter and cucumber salad (£7), which sounded terrific on paper. This was the Laughing Heart’s take on the Sichuanese smacked cucumber with garlic and chilli oil (or perhaps bang bang ji si) that I make for myself at home regularly, but had none of the punch or flavour of the original (as written by Fuchsia Dunlop) or of the version you can get at Silk Road in Camberwell. It was bland and boring, the pork adding very little except some texture, and at a minimum it needed a lot more seasoning (there is no salt provided on the tables).

The tagliolini (£11) was far better – served with flakes of gurnard flesh, olives and tomatoes, with fresh pasta that bounced in my mouth, it was a fresh and lighter take on puttanesca. The best thing, in fact, was the broth that it came in, which carried the flavours of the tomato and gurnard and which we drank the lot of.

Of the “mains”, Cornish cod served with coco de paimpol beans and runner beans in a mussel broth, was well assembled, with fish that was perfectly cooked to the point of translucence. Both beans worked well – the coco de paimpol were creamy and buttery, and the bits of runner bean added crunch and a grassiness that offset them well – although the broth was forgettable. Though the dish was made well, it was similar to dishes I’ve had a dozen times before, and it was too small to justify its £17 price tag.

The best dish was the mangalitsa pork neck, served with a salad of “white kimchi” and a plum puree (£17). The pork was just superb – served pink, with a caramelised rim, it reminded me of the best char siu pork I’ve had, with the silkiness and meatiness you can only get from mangalitsa pork.

To finish, we had an absurdly small creme brulee made with sichuan pepper (£6). This was creamy and rich, but the sichuan pepper flavouring was too gentle and ended up feeling like more of an afterthought or novelty than anything more. And really, it was tiny. How much can some custard and brown sugar really cost?

Our meal for two came to £127, all told, including a £35 bottle of wine. While it had some real highlights, and for about 25% less might have felt quite special, there were too many dull, small or just bland dishes to justify that kind of price tag. While I would recommend it to fans of wine or people who don’t worry too much about the portion-to-price ratio, and I might recommend to you if you were in the area, I cannot recommend it without these qualifications.

Rating: No medals.

Review: Chik’n, Baker Street

in Restaurants

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

in Restaurants

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

in Restaurants

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.

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