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Sam Bowman - page 3

Sam Bowman has 32 articles published.

Review: The Grey Horse, Kingston

in Restaurants

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.

Review: Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting

in Restaurants

There’s a concept in economics that says when it’s difficult for consumers to tell good products from bad products before they buy, you eventually only end up with the bad – there is no advantage to selling things of decent quality, but doing so takes more work, so why bother?

I sometimes wonder if the vast number of identikit curry houses in London serving greasy, overspiced, underflavoured curries have done this to Indian food. I dread visiting one, and I suspect the bad have driven out the good. In theory, brands are one way of getting around this problem, because they reduce consumer ignorance about what they’re buying. This may explain why Dishoom has done so well despite being pretty average. At least you know what you’re getting.

Still, this problem doesn’t seem to have overwhelmed Tooting’s Apollo Banana Leaf, which somehow manages to thrive selling solid Indian and Sri Lankan food at amazingly low prices. I’ve been three times, and every time it has been close to being full, and like Vauxhall’s Hot Stuff it seems to have something of a cult following.

The two dining rooms room are canteen-like with bright lights and white tiles, plus some flashing Christmas lights in the window (in mid-February). The menu is large and daunting, though many dishes are repeated under different section headings depending on their ‘meaty’ ingredient.

Lamb rolls and chicken dosa

To start we had mutton rolls (99p each) and a chicken masala dosa (£5.75), which was a rice and lentil pancake filled with a chicken and potato curry that was strongly flavoured with cumin. This came with a thin aubergine sauce to pour on top. This was very big, and the bites that included a big explosion of cumin from a whole seed were quite delicious, but overall it was too stodgy for my tastes. Mutton rolls were substantial and meaty, and came with two excellent dipping sauces, one chilli and one coconut, that were sweet with a vinegary bite.

Aubergine curry

Aubergine curry was spectacular: a creamy, sweet, rich sauce with thin spears of aubergine that had been cooked perfectly to give them just the right amount of bite. The sheer amount of food we ordered made it difficult to finish this one, but I just about managed it.

Devilled mutton
Devilled mutton

I’ve mentioned my love of goat before on this blog and that’s also true of mutton. There’s something about eating that ever-so-slightly chewy, powerfully-flavoured meat that makes me feel immensely satisfied. Devilled mutton was marinated in vinegar before being dry-fried in big chunks with onions and chilli and covered in a hot, spicy paste. It was tolerably spicy (and I am not a Big Man about spicy food) and deliciously warming, though the ‘mutton fry’ I had at a previous trip there was slightly better with smaller, crispier bits of mutton.

Prawn 65
Prawn 65

‘Prawn 65’ was a plate of lightly battered fried prawns, tempura-like, and even though they were juicy and fresh I admit that I found them a little bit pointless.

On previous trips I’ve tried their egg stringhopper (a dish of spiced rice noodles and scrambled eggs) and a mutton dish that came, fairly bizarrely, with tagliatelle-style noodles and vegetables, and even more bizarrely was quite delicious.

For all the above plus rice and a chappati – which was more than enough for two – the bill came to just £33, which felt like a real bargain (bear in mind that it is BYOB so that clearly helped).

After three trips, Apollo Banana Leaf feels like an old friend – not necessarily very pretty, occasionally a little boring, but most of the time very enjoyable, comforting, and reliable. And somewhere I’ll want to visit again and again.

Rating: 〶 〶 – Two medals.

Review: The Joint, Brixton

in Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: Avoid.

Review: Flat Iron, Covent Garden

in Restaurants

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

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

The Flat Iron steak
The Flat Iron steak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Dip & Flip, Tooting

in Restaurants

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

Hamburger with fried egg

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

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

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

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

Definitely not poutine
Definitely not poutine

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

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

A pint of milkshake
A pint of milkshake

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

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

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

Rating: 〶 – One medal.

Review: Shuang Shuang, Chinatown

in Restaurants

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

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

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

My mala broth being poured
My mala broth being poured

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Review: Nanban, Brixton

in Restaurants

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

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

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

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

Ackee and saltfish fritters
Ackee and saltfish fritters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasebo burger
Sasebo burger

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

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

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

Score: 〶 – one medal.

Review: Ma’Plucker, Soho

in Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: No medals. 

Review: Kricket, Brixton

in Restaurants

For the last couple of years I’ve fantasised about living in a shipping container converted into an apartment. They look cool, one would be about the size of a small studio flat, and you’d have thought that they’d be quite cheap. Maybe these are the solution to the housing crisis?

So far the closest I’ve come is going to retail ‘popups’ like Boxpark Shoreditch and Pop Brixton, the latter of which is really rather nice, feeling like a set from a post-collapse science fiction TV show. The ‘street food’ there is also quite impressive – Miss P’s Barbecue making a decent stab at beef brisket and pulled pork, and Koi Ramen doing a remarkably good tonkotsu broth (so good, in fact, that I ordered a bowl after already eating a whole pizza, just to enjoy the flavour).

Kricket is one of the more upmarket places here, having its own container with tables and seats to eat indoors. It’s small and cute and surprisingly spaceous indoors, though still only looked as if it could seat sixteen, though they did have space outside as well. I guess they plans to move if and when it hits it big, because even though we had no trouble getting a table at Saturday lunchtime I can’t imagine that’s the case in the evenings.

Kricket do little plates of food meant for sharing (four or five between two people, they told me), so between four of us we ordered one of everything on the menu. 

Bhel Puri was a bowl of puffed rice with spices, yoghurt and mango sauce, and even though it reminded me a little bit too much of a bowl of savoury Rice Krispies its vaguely ‘Indian’ aroma and the pleasantly crunchy rice were a nice opener to the meal.

Bhel puri

Samphire pakoras (samphire being a sort of weed with fleshy stalks that grows by the sea) were impressively light and crispy – it was more like tempura than most pakoras I’ve had – and came with a sweet chutney on top and very mild creamy sauce on the side. The sauce was, perhaps, a little too mildly flavoured.

Samphire pakoras/tempura

Smoked aubergine was surprisingly flavoursome though its cold chutneyish presentation was not at all what I’d expected. Like many of the dishes here it came with a yoghurt on the side which balanced with the spiced smoky sweetness off the aubergine nicely.

Goat shoulder raan

One of the two best dishes of the lot was the goat. Now, I love goat. It’s flavoursome, rich, exotic and has a lovely tough stringy texture that I gather I’m not supposed to enjoy in meat but I do. And I loved this goat – it was cooked beautifully, with a slightly crispy edge and most of the fat rendered off. It was presented more or less on its own, a brave but correct call because it tasted good enough solo. I was annoyed that I had to share it and perhaps I will order two bowls of it next time.

Fried chicken with curry leaf mayonnaise
Fried chicken with curry leaf mayonnaise

Both the fried chicken and wood pigeon were forgettable – the fried chicken was competently done in a light batter, but the curry leaf mayonnaise it came with didn’t taste of anything. The wood pigeon was just dull, although the girolle mushrooms it came on top of were cute.

A big bowl of crab meat
A big bowl of crab meat

‘Bombay butter garlic crab’ is a slightly grandiose name for what was really just a big bowl of sweet crab meat with some poppadums on the side. I suppose, looking back, the butter helped make it richer and creamier than crab meat would otherwise be, and indeed it was quite delicious. I believe this was Ben’s favourite dish of the meal, and certainly if you like crab you’d like this. If not, I guess you wouldn’t order it in the first place.

Kedgeree
Kedgeree

The posh kedgeree (or ‘kichri’) had a warm heat and subtle curry flavour mixing nicely with some quite nutty-tasting rice. It was flecked with smoked haddock and, brilliantly, little bits of pickled cauliflower, and the raw egg yolk on top (which we stirred into it) gave it a lush creaminess. Funnily enough, the bites I had with some of the parsley on top were the best, and there should probably be a bit more parsley so those bites are the rule, not the exception.

Gulab jamum

It feels strange to write about the dessert because I almost never bother with desserts (why would you, when a bag of Haribo is usually a fifth of the price?), and Indian food is, I think, not exactly renowned for its desserts. Well, let me tell you, the gulab jamums deserve to change that reputation.

These were little balls of cake soaked in syrup (yes, I know that sounds disgusting) served with ice cream and ground up carom seeds. The carom seeds made the dish – they taste a little bit like cardamom, and a little bit like thyme, and offset the sweetness of the cake perfectly. This was so good that we ordered a second plate so that each of the four of us could have the equivalent to one ball each. One ball is probably all you need, though.

£83.60 for lunch for four is hardly cheap (although that does include two beers and a cocktail – I was a bit hungover), and I did not leave the meal feeling particularly stuffed. But that’s not really the point of Kricket – as Ben said, we were having the equivalent of a good tasting menu for a third of the price.

And the food here certainly is worth tasting, much more so than Dishoom, which is similar in concept if not execution. My main complaint is that they sometimes erred a little too much on the side of ‘subtlety’: while never bland, some of the dishes could have used a little extra oomph.

But that’s a minor quibble – there’s no shortage of brutally overflavoured ‘street food’ out there, and it’s impressive when gently-seasoned dishes like the samphire, crab and goat end up so well. So, at least until I manage to find a shipping container to move into, Pop Brixton and Kricket itself will keep me coming back.

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

Review: Bao, Soho

in Restaurants

After hearing Ben and Philip fantasise for months about going, I was pretty pleased with myself for making it to Bao before them. A Taiwanese steamed bun restaurant that started life as a stand at the street food collective Kerb, Bao has quickly built a reputation as one of London’s most popular restaurants, with a long queue even from its opening night.

We did have to queue, but got there early enough (by about 6:20pm) that it only lasted fifteen or twenty minutes. And, once you’re inside, Bao is very cute: densely packed into a space only slightly bigger than my bedroom, it’s all clean, neat lines of walnut tables and chairs, humming with the sound of people eating. It doesn’t seem like it’d be very accommodating for groups of more than three or four, but for two it was quite lovely.

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We’d looked over the menu while we queued, and after ordering food came as it was ready, which spaced out the meal nicely.

A very small glass of peanut milk
A very small glass of peanut milk

After the little glass of ‘peanut milk’ (which just tasted just like a thin peanut-butter milkshake), first up were pigs’ trotter nuggets. These were grated portions of dark meat and fat in a crunchy breadcrumbed shell, and had a rich, deep flavour that went well with the smoky green chilli sauce they were served with. They were quite small and there were only four of them, but their deep porky flavour made them worth the asking price (£4).

Trotter nuggets
Trotter nuggets

Taiwanese-style fried chicken was my favourite part of the meal – they were big and chunky and their breadcrumb coating was crispy but light. I’ve had so many variations on fried chicken recently (Korean-style, Southern-style, Chicken Cottage-style) that I didn’t expect to find these very interesting but the lightness of the outside, despite being thick and crunchy, was quite remarkable. These came with a drizzle of a sauce that was sort of halfway between sriracha and sweet ketchup.

Taiwanese fried chicken
Taiwanese fried chicken

But my first bao was unimpressive. The classic’s bun was soft and fluffy and the ground peanut gave it a nice, sweet smell, but the stewed pork inside wasn’t particularly flavourful at all. It came with shredded coriander which I couldn’t really taste and the stewed texture of the pork (like a very soggy pulled pork) together with the bun just ended up tasting like a meaty mush. I liked the first bite of it, but the whole thing needed something else – a slice of one of the pickled roots that came as part of the house pickles might have given it a nice sharpness and offset the other flavours and textures a bit.

Classic bao (with house pickles)
Classic bao (with house pickles)

I’m sorry to say that the other bao weren’t much better either. The confit pork one, with the same sweet and spicy sauce that came with the fried chicken, was overwhelmed by the dried shallots that came with it. The lamb shoulder bao, done with garlic mayo and coriander sauce in the style of a very posh doner kebab, was the most interesting of the lot – though still not especially tasty. The fried chicken bao was fine: the same as the fried chicken we’d had earlier with some kimchi and a bun (but with considerably less chicken!).

Bao details
Bao details
Crumbed daikon bao

The best bao was the crumbed daikon one – a deep-fried mash of winter radish with a slice of the pickled root that I’d craved earlier and, I was happy to see, really did elevate the other flavours.

Overall, then, Bao didn’t impress me very much. Three bao each filled us both up (even though all the portions seemed very small for the price), and at £52 for two including beers and service the bill wasn’t too painful, but I didn’t see what about Bao seems to have won so many other people over. Is it just hype? Maybe – and to spare other people a long queue in the winter cold, this may be one ‘sacred Bao’ that needs slaying.

Score: No medals. (For explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

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