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Two Lights, Shoreditch

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“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.

The Begging Bowl, Peckham

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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.

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.

Four Legs @ The Compton Arms, Islington

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I used to live right by the Compton Arms, but in 33 months I never once went there. And yet, in the three weeks since I moved flat, I’ve been there four times.

One reason is that the once-crusty regulars pub has been taken over by hipster millennials, and revamped. In: morello cherry goses, revolving IPAs on tap, and a fridge of Belgian sours. Out: your reassuring range of standard pub lagers.

Apparently, this caused a revolt among the pub’s oldest and most loyal supporters – and Fosters has returned to the tap lineup – except now the edited custom Fosters label reads ‘Compromise’.

Another reason is that I had been told by several people that Four Legs, now in residence Tuesdays to Sundays, does one of if not the best burger in London. This is the sort of recommendation that I cannot overlook.

Clearly unsatisfied with the plaudits they’ve earned for their burgers, Four Legs have branched out pretty widely. We couldn’t resist eating a full dinner, starting with the quail.

The quail was piled ridiculously high with truffle shavings, and to our surprise came bone in. I’m not certain that truffle added to this hugely, but then again I am almost always happy to eat truffle, especially at these prices, and the pieces of bird were battered and fried with a great deal of competence. A very pleasant dish.

Next came their take on a Thai green papaya salad. For me, this one didn’t really work: it somehow tasted a bit bland. I think it needed some more fish sauce and some more lime, and perhaps a little bit of sugar.

The leeks were essentially perfect. They came heavy and silky soft, and served on a solid lake of ‘curds’ – not the squeaky squares we were expecting, but a substance more like a mix of creamy burrata and tangy greek yoghurt. And the whole lot was drizzled with grassy olive oil, sprinkled with black pepper, and served with bread.

In a London where good sourdough bread comes by and large as standard this still stood out as particularly moist and dense, like they had implausibly managed to cook it themselves in the tiny pub kitchen alongside everything else.

Ultimately this is all preamble. This restaurant, at least in its current incarnation, is going to live and die on the strength of its burger. So I’m very pleased to be able to announce that the burger is very good, definitely in the top 10 for London and potentially in the top 5.

They get all the important things right. No fancy sauces, no fancy toppings. The onions are chopped so they don’t make it difficult to eat (like the insane practice of serving whole rings). There is no lettuce or tomatoes and the cheese is good honest American non-cheese.

The bun, despite being a brioche, is soft and lightly chewy, and does not have any trouble maintaining coherence in the face of the burger’s juice, grease, and liquid cheese onslaught. The patty itself was roughly average in heft, charred well on the outside, and moist, partly because it was so consistently cheesed and sauced.

Best of all, it comes with essentially an entire layer of finely sliced pickles, and the pickles are clearly homemade: very sharp and piquant, and much sweeter than the overly healthy ones you get in McDonalds.

Basically this is a good burger, from people who agree with me on all the essential points of what makes a burger good. The only issue I have with it is that it was served fully cooked through. However I know that many councils won’t let them serve their burgers pink, so it’s entirely possible that this is somebody else’s fault, not theirs.

Even hampered by the nanny state, Four Legs serve a rather pleasant meal for not much money at all (we spent about £40 on food and about £20 on two rounds of pints). And above all, they are the first restaurant I’ve ever been to that serves nice normal food and a genuinely good burger at the same time. If you’re nearby, go check it out.

Rating: One medal.

Review: Beer + Burger Store, Haggerston

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To get the first half of the review out of the way immediately: Beer + Burger Store is an excellent beer store. They serve a wide range of beers I’d like to drink, from milkshake IPAs to kettle sours, to spontaneous fermentations; and a wide range I’m less interested in but appreciate the existence of.

Many of the bottles and tins are expensive, but my willingness to pay for novel beer is almost unlimited and my depth of experiences buying online tell me that this isn’t driven by B+B’s mark-up.

But this is a restaurant review website, and while the quality of drinks will often tilt the scale in one direction or another, the strength of my recommendation will always depend mostly on the strength of the food offering. After all, there is a hipster bottle shop, beer bar, or taproom in almost every neighbourhood now, and while this is one of the better ones in Dalston/Haggerston, my absolute favourite nearby would be Seven Seasons on Hoxton Street. If we’re talking pure beer.

Weirdly enough, I ate B+B’s burgers twice last weekend. We were sitting in Highbury Fields on Saturday afternoon and it came up on Deliveroo. Their Deliveroo was pretty good, but it didn’t feel fair reviewing them on the basis of food that had by necessity rested at least half an hour when I ate it. It just so happened that I was in Haggerston that Sunday as well, and I thought why not go back and see what the real version is like.

The short answer is that their burgers are decent, but that decent burgers are par for the course in London now. Back in 2014 I could list every single good burger that London offered; London burgers were so scarce that we queued an hour for the opening of Shake Shack. Now people have learned how to make burgers good, and, presuming there is no Bleecker Burger nearby, there are at least ten places I’d be happy to walk into almost any day.

Beer + Burger Store make smashed burgers, like Shake Shack, but with far more commitment to the concept. Their bizarrely undersold ‘double cheeseburger’ is actually a triple: three smashed down, darkly caramelised, and crisped up patties, thicker than you’d expect, and slathered in American cheese, with a huge number of pickles.

B+B’S ‘DOUBLE’ CHEESEBURGER

The pickles are a highlight: clearly homemade, particularly excellent, and generously portioned – you get something like 20 little slices. The buns are also a highlight: incredibly soft, chewy, and yielding, and able to take any amount of grease and sauce thrown at them, unlike the fluffy brioche you are often given, which gives up without the slightest fight.

The patties should be another highlight: I love the way they are cooked on the outside, and the surprising heft means you occasionally see a tantalising glimpse of pink or purple. But the beef ends up tasting bland and grey – I think this is due both to significant underseasoning and excessively lean meat going into the mince.

The best burgers require nothing but cheese, onions, and maybe pickles, and all of these merely highlight the beefiness that should be the focus of the dish. Here I found myself adding ketchup to get myself through.

Some of the other options were stronger. The chicken burger was one of the best I’ve had: clearly brined to the proper juicy texture, with soft chewy bun perfectly complimenting the bone dry crunchy batter. I have the greatest admiration for how they offer dipping gravy – how much better it is than ketchup or mayo for chips, or even for your burger itself.

In some ways this is an unfairly negative review. In 2013 Beer + Burger Store would probably have ranked among my favourite burger joints in London. I probably would have featured it on lists of London’s best burgers, and regularly sent my friends there to sample its wares. But it’s the current year, and in the current year the quality of burgers in London is so high as to make B+B just another decent burger joint.

(No medals.)

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: The Black Horse, Norbiton

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Restaurant quality is pretty concentrated in a few places. If someone asks me where they ought to eat tonight in Soho or Shoreditch I have to ask them if they have any further restrictions to make it easier for me. If someone asks me where to eat in Kingston I’ve had a harder time, despite growing up there.

Part of this is my theory about expensive areas vs cheap areas: expensive areas tend to have nicer shops and pubs; cheaper areas tend to have better restaurants and bars. Perhaps well-heeled denizens of Hampstead or Greenwich prefer to entertain.

In any case, given that I harbour a fondness for the area I grew up in, and that I often find myself in the neighbourhood, I am always on the lookout for good new restaurants. If someone asked me where they ought to eat in Norbiton I would tell them the pub kitchen of The Black Horse – and if they don’t like pub food, then perhaps the Pizza Pilgrims van outside.

The menu is in line with what you might expect from the smart modern facade and light, airy interiors. It’s a modern gastropub with a broad modern British pub menu offering its take on the Scotch egg for a reasonable price.

My companion started with duck liver parfait, served in a jar with toast and red onion jam. He said it was good but I didn’t try it – as much as I try I can’t get myself to like liver, however it’s served.

I had the fishcake, which was technically a main. It was a hefty breaded and deep fried chunk of shredded white fish, dry, crisp and grease-free on the outside, and soft and delicate internally. It came with a runny-yolked poached egg, a tartar-esque sauce, and well-wilted greens. In a sense it’s simple food, but very difficult to do well – here it was comforting and homely.

I didn’t taste the steak and Guinness pie either, but my friend seemed happy: it was hearty and once again, pulling off something apparently simple and straightforward is no mean feat.

My main was a bavette steak with ‘house butter’. Texturally, the butter worked perfectly with bavette, an extremely lean and beefy steak, which was satisfyingly charred on the outside, and a touch on the rare side of medium rare. I have never found a decently-cooked bavette steak I didn’t enjoy, especially because it’s cheap. This was reflected in the menu price (£15, as compared to £21.50 for the regular steak – presumably a sirloin or ribeye).

Flavour-wise, we were told it was centred around capers, tarragon and Worcestershire sauce, but neither of us could shake the idea it was curry-flavoured. The chips were regular chips: reasonably well done but nothing that will blow your mind. I understand why it’s impractical for all restaurants to fry their chips in dripping (a huge fraction of parties will include vegetarians), but now that I’ve gotten used to it everything else is a bit disappointing.

So we left happy. Had we paid, we would have paid something like £35 a head including wine, and we left full. As I say, in future if you ask me where to eat in Norbiton I’ll tell you that you could do a lot worse than The Black Horse.

(No medals.)

Review: Monograph Supper Club, Islington

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I hummed and hawed about writing this review because like almost everyone, I don’t like to attack the little guy. It’s all well and good to slate a high end hip new opening in Mayfair, or an overpriced chain, but if restaurants are mostly small businesses, supper clubs are uniformly microbusinesses. Slagging them off doesn’t feel good.

But I asked myself “would I be happy if a single person went to Monograph because I was trying to be nice?” And the answer was no. You must not let Monograph take your money for their appallingly unbalanced quality-to-price-ratio supper club – please take my advice.

We went to Monograph for four reasons. 1) We like Japanese food. 2) We like sake, and they offered a tasting flight. 3) We like supper clubs. 4) They have attractive design – their website and menu are clean,minimalist and Japanese.

It was £35 for food, and although we did bring our own booze to the art gallery in which it is hosted, we also paid £18 for four small glasses of sake, which were perfectly fine. As you will see, we did not get our money’s worth.

They themed the night by occasionally playing snippets of Japanese adverts and films (including Tampopo, one of my favourites) in extremely blurry rips. They made us close our eyes for the first one, but the distorted sound we heard had no tangible link to the any of the dishes I am about to describe.

Dish one tasted fine, but to call it a ‘course’ is really stretching the truth. Served in a cardboard box like later dishes, our starter (which we ate after a very grand and loud blare of intro music) was literally – literally – just a small handful of watercress with a bit of sweet dressing and a few grams of katsuobushi shavings. It seemed a bit lazy and cynical to make it one quarter of a tasting menu.

Dish two was a bowl of udon noodles in a soy seasoned dashi broth with some (surely shop bought) mackerel flaked in. Yes, I finished it, because I was famished, and no, it wasn’t actively bad, but it was the sort of thing you’d knock together in four minutes with the leftover contents of your cupboards, not one of the dishes you’d plan to showcase your cooking to 20 strangers paying £35 a head.

There was one actively bad dish: the limp and lifeless pumpkin korokke. They should have been crisp and hot deep fried croquettes, but they were just balls of stodge. I ate them because even though this was the third course, I was still extremely hungry due to the incredibly stingy portions we received despite the cheap and basic ingredients.

The only dish with any redeeming features was the dessert, which was neither as stingy as the rest – a selection of rather pleasant mochi – nor as amateur. It was also presented far more professionally. Maybe these folks should sell homemade mochi for a living.

As I left I thought to myself how well several restaurants nearby in Islington could feed me for £53 including drinks. It’s not just the plethora of excellent cheap restaurants where it would be actively hard to spend £53 – Kanada-Ya, MeatLiquor, Chick n Sours. You could even get a proper sit down meal at a good mid price restaurant like Oldroyd, Rok, or the Drapers Arms. It’s just a disgrace, a real disgrace, and I am still shocked and smarting from being asked to spend so much for so little.

The SUL rating system has many virtues, and Monograph is a supper club that the ‘avoid’ rank was made for.

Rating: Avoid.

Review: Londrino, London Bridge

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The bias in reviewing free dinners is not just the quid pro quo element – the PR scratches your back with a free dinner and you scratch theirs with a generous review – but also the balance between price and enjoyment. When you eat a good restaurant meal with a significant price tag the pleasure from the lovely food is balanced out by the unlovely cost.

I say this because a few times a year I get taken out for dinner for my birthday or otherwise and I worry that maybe I overrate these restaurants because I never see the bill.

All of this is preamble to me saying that I had a fantastic birthday dinner at Londrino, where food feels uncomplicated and part of a long tradition (in this case Portuguese), but at the same time novel and unexpected. However, it’s expensive – I’d guess we spent £80-100 a head, though that included the equivalent of four courses and madeira to top off the wine.

Londrino’s menu is, along with so many modern European restaurants in London, designed for sharing. They’ll ‘talk you through’ the menu, but it’s pretty intuitive: bread, snacks, regular starters, proper mains. There’s no reason why you’d actually have to share; equally, why wouldn’t you, since everything at Londrino is good and you get to taste more dishes.

We started with bread, obviously, which was the standard high quality sourdough you can get almost everywhere in town now. It came with a delicious cultured butter that was clearly deeply fermented, with whey, brown butter, and yeasty flavours, and bright yellow in colour – reminding you that ‘culturing’ and ‘fermenting’ are just controlled rottenness.

Next was cabbage with black garlic crisps. Black garlic is garlic cooked over several weeks to make it extremely sweet, slightly tart, and a deep Maillard reaction black. I’d say that the black garlic crisps could have been even more black garlicky, but the cabbage was just the right level of tender.

Then came sardine tartare on sourdough crispbreads. This divided us – half thought it was among the best dishes of the night, and half thought that the deep seawater-seaweed flavour was a bit too much.

Roast chestnut, ceps (porcini mushrooms), and kale, recommended by the waiter as one of his favourite dishes, and unpictured because the gathered diners were wolfing things down faster than I could set up pictures of them, was perhaps too small to share between five and each get a balance of all the ingredients. But it tasted like Christmas, sweet from the chestnuts and savoury and moreish from the ceps.

Clams confounded expectations. They were silky, tender, and without any rubbery chew or bite – and where the sardine was far more fishy than we expected, here there was only the light seaside hint of the freshest seafood. The juice, although presumably just a simple concoction of parsley, garlic, butter and lemon, was even better, and I slurped it down directly from the bowl like a Japanese ramen aficionado.

Acorda & negi leeks was one of the many dishes we had to ask for clarification about. It turned out to be a blended mash – not necessarily in a bad way – of leeks and bread, beautifully presented with a shimmering halo of oil. It really needed more seasoning, but was otherwise okay.

As much as we had enjoyed the starters, the mains absolutely blew our minds. The steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare with a proper char, and clearly a well-aged bit of Denver, with all of those profound funky cheesy flavours. It came with chunks of kohlrabi (forgettable), a strange peanutty vanilla sauce that sort-of worked, and nicely contrasting slices of very lightly pickled and floppy-crunchy daikon.

The aged Peking duck was even better, with everyone calling it their favourite dish by this point of the meal. At the time I thought Peking referred to the breed of duck, rather than the preparation, but looking back I realise it was a ‘take’ on the classic Chinese dish, with pancakes made out of overcooked, squished up and refried sticky rice, spring onions, and black garlic in place of sweet fermented sauce (or hoi sin). Despite the name, the duck did not go through the traditional three day preparation process – it was just an expertly cooked duck breast, served it with crispy skin, melty fat underneath, and uniformly pink.

And then our third main, a 500g sharing serving of presa, a cut of pork from the shoulder that you eat like a steak. At £75, it may seem expensive, and it is. But Bisaro, like Iberico, is the wagyu of pork, and easily better than nearly every beef steak I’ve eaten in my life. 500g of chateaubriand at Hawksmoor would be £67.50, so it’s roughly comparable to other extremely high end meat options.

Either way, it produces a formidable steak: incredibly tender, slightly sweet, and clearly grilled over wood or charcoal such that the outside had a powerful smoky char. On the other hand it came with buttermilk-salsify chips, and while they provided a nice clean contrast to the meaty hunk of, well, meat, honestly I’d have preferred potato chips.

While the cheeses were just a nice selection of (probably) Neal’s Yard options, dessert was worth talking about. We ordered every single option, and they ranged from the familiar and straightforwardly delicious (pillowy brioche with crunchy sweetened hazelnuts and sour caramel), to the strange-but-enjoyable (intensely Japanese-tasting roasted amazake ice cream), to the bizarre-but-we-still-finished-it (beetroot ice cream, and an ice cream so smoky it was genuinely like inhaling from a cigar).

So I recommend Londrino. I had a lovely meal and a lovely evening. But it’s absolutely clear that for someone like me, this is never going to be somewhere that I go outside of special occasions and celebrations.

Rating: One medal.

Review: Rök, Islington

in Restaurants

My two biggest cooking obsessions at the moment are fermentation and wood smoking. So it’s no coincidence then, that I found myself in Rök’s second location (the original is in Shoreditch), where almost everything on the menu is either smoked or pickled. Even one of the beers they offer is somehow imbued with a strong woodsmoke flavour.

The Danish feel extends past the cooking techniques: the decor is resolutely stripped-down Nordic, and the ingredients listed on the menu at least feel like the sorts of game and berries you might find in a cold Northern forest. I don’t know enough to tell you whether they really are.


We were encouraged to start with pickles—we didn’t need much encouragement—and sourdough with butter. The sourdough was clearly grilled over copious smoke, because every blackened chewy bite was deeply smoky, like the smell in your clothes after a long day standing by a charcoal grill. Even better was the extremely generous dense ball of nori butter, giving every bite a luxurious savoury glutamate flavour.

According to our waiter the pickles were traditionally fermented over seven days with only the natural bacteria found on the veg, salt, and sugar. This worked better for one batch than the other. The fennel was fantastic: slightly sweet, sharp and zingy from the acid the process produces, crunchy, and with the sometimes-overpowering anise flavour toned down to a floral herby air. But the cucumber (and gin) variety seemed very lightly pickled: not nearly sour and sharp enough. Nice crisp bits of cucumber are no bad thing, but a let down in comparison.

For starters proper I opted for the Scotch egg, a rare menu item with no apparent Scandi influences: deep fried nduja, a spreadable Calabrian sausage, wrapped around a quail’s egg, and served with dijon mustard mayonnaise. I’m pretty sure the meat wasn’t entirely nduja, or was at least a homemade take on it, since it was far less powerfully spicy and fudgey, but it did give more contrast than regular sausage. On top of a perfectly-runny egg yolk and the mayo lubricant—fresh and sweet rather than cloying—it reminded me how satisfying this little treat can be.


I like nearly all foods, but I really hate liver, so I can’t tell you how the other starter was—crispbread with caraway or nigella seeds and an extremely light, airy and spreadable pate of duck heart and liver, topped with chives and blackberry jam—but my companion said it was fabulous.


However I can tell you that the first main, wood pigeon breast reverse seared over smoke and served with crispy quinoa, a sort of baba ganoush, and a sweet sticky jus, was exactly what I was hoping this sort of place would sell. The pigeon had a solid bite, despite being extremely easy to cut, and the smoking was so well balanced that you never felt overwhelmed—even though you were essentially eating smoke with smoke.

The other main, mutton shoulder with butterbean puree, was less good. It was a generous, lean slab, presented like a steak, and while some of the elements were impressive, it didn’t really come together. Ordering slow cooked mutton shoulder I expected a pull-apart tender mass, but instead it was a firm chunk, with very little of the wood flavour that made the other dishes so beguiling. It seemed like a little too much tenderness had departed, and this wasn’t made up for by the lovely browned exterior. Which isn’t to say we didn’t mop up the entire plate.


The bone marrow mash with garlic oil also wasn’t quite what we were expecting. The folks at Rök most certainly know how to do a good puree, so it was a surprise that their “mash” was more of a baked potato endeavour, with lots of textural variety. This is by no means bad, but not at all what we thought we had ordered. What’s more, compared to the best versions I’ve had (or made!) this one was notably lacking in bone marrow. So, an enjoyable dose of garlicky-fatty potato, but not one that hit the precise spot we had in mind.

At this point (£42/head including drinks and service) we were extremely full, and although the whiskey-roasted peach with creme fraiche and frosted almonds was calling to us, we knew we couldn’t manage it. We promised we’d be back, and since it’s about five minutes walk from my house, I’m certain we will.

Rating: One medal.

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