Category archive

Restaurants - page 2

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.

London’s 21 Best Restaurants

in Restaurants

There are endless “best restaurant in London” lists, but in our (Sam Bowman’s & Ben Southwood’s) view nearly all of them are rubbish. They’re too expensive and tend to focus on things other than food like service, ambience and image. These things are all important, but with Straight Up London, we have tried to create a guide to where a normal person should eat because the food tastes good for the price you pay. That doesn’t mean they’re all cheap, but the ones that aren’t are really, truly worth it. There are lots of places we recommend, and far more that we don’t recommend, but here are the places we adore and return to time after time. This, in no particular order, is our list of the absolute creme de la creme, the must-visit places London has to offer, and why we keep going back to them.

1. Som Saa, Spitalfields

 

Som Saa’s Thai food is outstanding, as good or better than most of the best food in Thailand with the punchy flavours that make Thai food so good. The deep fried whole sea bass, piled high with herbs and toasted rice, is a joy to pick apart with your hands, and the rest of the menu is updated frequently. Not every dish works, but that’s a testament to the constant experimentation and innovation that goes on in the kitchen, which explains why Som Saa is still at the top of its game. Even the cocktails are good – the Dragon’s Milk, made with sticky rice rum and coconut cream, is one of the best I’ve had anywhere.—SB

2. Bleecker Street, Victoria

 

Everybody likes hamburgers. Bleecker make easily the best burgers in town, even when ridiculous council restrictions stop them offering their signature Bleecker black, where the two unbelievably juicy patties sandwich a slab of soft Clonakilty black pudding. There may well be some burger, somewhere, that is even better, but I find it hard to believe. I have eaten dozens and yet I am still thinking, writing this, of how I can somehow engineer getting one at some point today. They’re that good.—BS

3. Silk Road, Camberwell

 

Nowhere else in London is like Silk Road – an unassuming, dingy-looking place from the outside, Silk Road is a family-run restaurant specialising in food from the Xinjiang province of China, where central Asian and Muslim influences make the food totally unlike the Cantonese that most of us are used to. Chili, cumin and salt are the key flavours here, best shown off in the lamb skewers with molten cubes of fat and meat cooked over hot coals. The hand-pulled noodles are excellent, as are the ‘home style’ cabbage and aubergine dishes that bring rich meatiness to otherwise-boring vegetables. Best of all are the prices, which are low enough to let you experiment without too much danger, and especially the £2.60 Tsingtao beers – an offer I just can’t refuse.—SB

4. Smokestak, Shoreditch

 

Barbecue in London has never really taken off. Yes, you can eat solid, decent smoked meat from one of Bodeans’s efficiently-distributed outlets. But the upper end of the market has struggled: Shotgun closed down and Pitt Cue decided to stop offering the low and slow experiments that made them such a success initially. So Smokestak is one of a kind, offering both glorious staples like slices of juicy brisket and genius innovations like smoked girolles on dripping-drenched toast. The sheer depth of their cooking talent means they even do well when they try their hand at zingy, fresh raw fish dishes and baked potatoes slathered in rarebit.—BS

5. Blacklock, Soho

 

The number one request we get is to recommend a meat place that isn’t insanely expensive. I always say Blacklock and every single time I get a text afterwards saying it was amazing. Not only is it the best place in London to get a steak, it is also the best place to get a pork or lamb chop. What’s more, you can get all of these things at the same time for £20, which is before you even consider the dripping trencher—a slab of focaccia-esque bread on which they pile all of the chops. There is almost literally nothing better than bread heavy with the juices of wood-grilled meat. I won’t be satisfied until there is a Blacklock in every neighbourhood of the UK.—BS

6. Good Friend Chicken, Soho

 

There’s not much more to say than this: Good Friend chicken, located just beside Leicester Square, will sell you a frisbee-sized piece of chicken breast, hammered flat, breaded and deep fried, for £6. The popcorn chicken – which really just increases the surface area at the expense of less moist, juicy chicken – is good too, and a steal at £3 a bag. They’ll also shake your choice of flavour powders on top to give an extra little kick – I have been at least a dozen times and still haven’t tried all the different combinations, but right now Thai flavouring plus salt and pepper is my combo of choice. The chili plus numbing sichuan pepper is a favourite, too.—SB

7. Santana Grill, Victoria

 

Mexican food still isn’t really a Thing in London, as indicated by the fact that clearly the best place around is a street food stall in Westminster, of all places, that is only open on weekday lunchtimes. Yes, you can get a peerless burrito with familiar stuff like cochinita pibil. But it is in the rare or off-menu offerings that Santana really excels: chilorio—pork confited in chile and lard served with pickled onions, smoked chicken tacos, or, best of all, the “bronut”. The bronut is a genius innovation where a regular jam doughnut is sliced open and filled with pulled brisket. It sounded like a bad idea to me at first, but that was until I tasted it.—BS

8. Kanada-Ya, Soho

 

Until I went to Kanada-Ya, I didn’t really understand why everyone was so het up about ramen. It’s just noodle soup, I thought. Now I understand what the fuss is all about: unbelievably creamy and strongly-flavoured pork broth, alkaline noodles with some bouncy al dente bite, slices of tender and meaty pork, and all the other accoutrements that balance each other perfectly. What’s more, ramen is a paradigmatic example, like pizza, of a food it just doesn’t make sense to ever make at home—it only makes sense at scale. It’s literally impossible to make a bowl of ramen nearly as good as Kanada-Ya offer for a price even approaching the generous £10.50 they’ll give you one for.—BS

9. A Wong, Victoria

 

Where Silk Road is a homely soul food restaurant offering big bold flavours and generous portions for a pittance, A Wong is a delicate high end specialist trying to push the boundaries and hone down classics into works of art. At lunch they offer only dim sum with whimsical designs—the fried rabbit dumpling is an orange and green carrot, and the sweet duck yolk dessert could be mistaken for a satsuma. At dinner, they have dishes from across China: crispy chilli beef, sweet and sour chicken, fish fragrant aubergine, and tea eggs whose yolk you will cut up and burst into a waiting nest of filo. In every case gloop is refined to cutting sweetness, grease to soothing fat and stodge to firm savoury satisfyingness. It shows you why these dishes spread so much in the first place.—BS

10. Kricket, Soho

 

The words “small plates” usually make my heart sink. Too little food shared between too many people, like butter spread over too much bread. But Kricket makes it work, using the opportunity to innovate with wonderful Indian dishes that, if you could only try one, would make you and your friends all jealous of each other’s dishes all night. I regularly find myself craving the bhel puri – a street snack of puffed rice and vegetables mixed with chutney and yoghurt – and the tandoori monkfish was one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had.—SB

11. The Dairy, Clapham

Modern European tasting menus can be great, but they can also be prissy, pretentious and a bit staid. Plus, they are always incredibly expensive. I would recommend The Dairy over any of the pricier higher-end tablecloth meals I have been to, as good as they were—it exemplifies what this sort of cuisine can be. Every dish is a surprising and exciting delight, and you hope again and again that you’ve miscounted and they’re going to bring you an extra course you forgot about. The best dish I had here was a truffled brie on toast with honey, but nearly everything manages to combine a new experience with easy deliciousness. What’s more, the seven course tasting menu is still only £48.—BS

12. Coal Rooms, Peckham

 

One of the newest restaurants on this list, the Coal Rooms occupies the old ticket office at Peckham Rye train station, with one of the rooms turned into a giant charcoal fire pit for roasting meat that, if you’re lucky, you can be seated around. The menu changes frequently and usually features ingredients and combinations I’ve never seen anywhere else – goat belly char siu, beef brisket Russian salad (has to be tried – so much better than it sounds), and the “Peckham Fatboy”, a giant potato croquette covered with melted raclette cheese and mayonnaise. Don’t be too distracted by the wackier-sounding dishes on offer – the grilled meat is superb too, and usually comes in the form of one enormous chop to share. It sounds strange, but make sure you check out the bathrooms – they’ve turned the old station bathrooms into a glorious palace, unlike any I’ve ever seen.—SB

13. Knife, Clapham

 

Perhaps we shouldn’t, when reviewing a steak restaurant with access to the most sought-after beef in the country, home in on Yorkshire puddings. But the fact that Knife gift you a large and entirely unheralded plate of Yorkshires inbetween your starters and main course highlights exactly why it’s such a nice place to eat. Yes, the beef is fantastic, yes the bread is hot from the oven and fancy little rolls rather than the omnipresent sourdough slices, yes there is wonderful gravy, and yes their sides are almost universally great. But it’s the little things like the unprompted doggy swan made out of aluminium foil for my precious leftover food that make me want to go back all the time, even just to hang out there.—BS

14. KOI Ramen, Brixton

 

If Kanada-ya is my head’s favourite ramen, KOI is my heart’s. I couldn’t believe that this tiny stall in Pop Brixton could make such a rich tonkotsu broth when I first tried it (and loved it so much that I ordered an entire bowl, straight after the pizza that was supposed to be my dinner). And I still can’t believe it now that it’s expanded to Tooting and Brick Lane and kept that high standard up. It’s a near-perfect bowl of fatty meaty goodness, and for only £6.50 it feels like I’m getting away with daylight robbery every time.—SB

15. Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting

 

What makes Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting’s best Sri Lankan restaurant, so good? It’s not the dry fried spicy mutton or the creamy, spicy aubergine curry, or even the chunky £1 mutton rolls. It’s not even the Paneer or Chicken “65”, flourescent pink nuggets of crispy fried protein that I can’t help but wolf down as soon as they arrive at the table. It’s because I know I can rely on it when I want to show off to my friends what really makes me tick, food-wise – affordable, interesting, fun and above all delicious food that you just can’t get anywhere else.—SB

16. Hélène Darroze at the Connaught

 

Of all the restaurants on the list, this is the fanciest and the priciest. If you go for dinner, it’s going to be at least £100 for food, and the cheapest wine on the menu is around £50 a bottle—it goes far, far higher. But sometimes you get what you pay for, not just in exquisite service and an incredibly beautiful old world dining room. Their chicken consomme tasted like an entire chicken compressed into a tiny, amazingly clear little dose of broth. Of course, nothing I had there will still be on the menu, but their range of skill—from confit chicken leg “tacos” to palate-cleansing apple soups means that I trust them to do anything well.—BS

17. Umut 2000, Dalston

 

There are hundreds of shiny metal charcoal grills in London, all offering an ostensibly similar menu of meat skewers with meze and flatbreads. Very few of them are places where you can’t get a decent meal for a decent price. But Umut 2000 (apparently Umut is a Turkish first name meaning hope) is the decentest of the lot. For £30 you can get a truly ginormous plate of chicken and lamb of various types, with unlimited warm tangy bread, and a huge plate of meze. Despite some very credible attempts, I have never managed to finish this between two, or even three, and despite the sheer quantity I have never encountered a single dry, tough, or bland piece of meat.—BS

18. Chick ‘n’ Sours, Haggerston

 

For something as simple as fried chicken it’s amazingly difficult to get right. Everywhere either overcooks it to a dry husk, tries to dress it up some flavourless meat with “fancy” flavourings and sides, or, worst and most common of all, gives you something swimming in grease that resembles something like what you’d get at a Morley’s at 2 o’clock in the morning. Not Chick ‘n’ Sours, though. I don’t know how they do it, but their chicken is not greasy at all, it’s just succulent and moist and actually tastes of something by itself. The dips are unintrusive – though I maintain that their St Agur blue cheese and buttermilk dip is one of the best things to have with chicken and chips, anywhere – and unusual sides like fish fragrant aubergine, pickled watermelon and kimchi nachos make every part of the meal a pleasure. In my experience the Haggerston branch is considerably better than the Covent Garden one, though, including when the Haggerston people did a residency in Brixton, so consider this an endorsement of that one only.—SB

19. Smoke & Salt, Brixton

 

Smoke and Salt’s “concept” – emphasising traditional techniques in things like curing and pickling – might sound faddish, but don’t let that put you off. This little place, occupying a little shipping container in Pop Brixton, is a testament to what a few talented chefs can do with discipline and a willingness to take risks with classic ingredients. Most dishes are far more than the sum of their parts – crispy new potatoes with gorgonzola, chimichurri and beef could hardly be bad, but somehow they make it shine, and make you wish that every other fried potato dish was just like it. Charred coley was cooked to perfection, a perfect example of how to cook fish without letting it become dry or textureless. The food is inexpensive and the menu changes seasonally, and while not every dish works, you’ll prefer Smoke and Salt’s noble failures to most restaurants’ successes.—SB

20. Lahore Karahi, Tooting

Two Indian-subcontinent restaurants within five minutes of each other on Tooting High Street might seem like overkill. But Lahore Karahi’s curries are the perfect compliment to Apollo Banana Leaf’s more unconventional dishes, and my favourite place for “traditional” Indo-Pakistani food in London. Grilled meats, like the fenugreek and chicken seekh kebab or the lamb chops, explode with flavour, and the house curries are simply far, far better than their equivalents at other curry houses. It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, and to dine in it’s most definitely unglamorous – but it’s also the best curry in London I’ve had.—SB

21. Peckham Bazaar, Peckham

 

Think of “balkan” food and you’ll probably either think of stodgy Greek stuff like moussaka or, worse, huge slabs of overcooked meat and boiled vegetables, Serbian-style. That’s unfair, and nothing will shatter that prejudice like a trip to Peckham Bazaar. If you go in the spring or summer, you’ll likely get something like grilled marinated octopus (non-rubbery, naturally) and prawns, or halibut kebabs, alongside courgette fritters. Go in the autumn or winter and slow-roasted meats will be on offer. The team here are true masters of their craft, creating new dishes daily according to what’s fresh and delicious, showing off obscure spices and vegetables from the Eastern Mediterranean and cooking their ingredients to perfection. Not only have I never had a bad meal here, I’ve never had a bad dish here.—SB

If you’ve enjoyed this, please consider sharing it on Twitter or Facebook! 

Review: Tea Room at Bun House, Soho

in Restaurants

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.

Victoria Park Market, Hackney

in Restaurants

The problem with going out for restaurants is that once you’ve paid for drinks, service, and a few courses you’ve usually spent £50. That’s a fair amount of money for almost anyone. But one thing London has done increasingly well in the five or so years I’ve been living in and around the centre is street food, and street food markets, where lots of vendors gang together and you can sometimes eat well for under £10.

Oftentimes these trucks and stalls will find themselves building enough hype and popularity to eventually open a proper restaurant—like how the Meatwagon turned into MeatMission, MeatLiquor and MeatMarket. They will expand their menus, serve you drinks, charge you service, and so on, but there is something very enjoyable about the raggedy streamlined simplification you get with a good honest food cart.

Last Sunday I went to the Sunday market in Victoria Park (a lovely walk down the canal) and I was surprised just how many great options they have, almost none of which I’d heard of, despite how voraciously I consume info about new popups, stalls, and openings. I ate solid fried chicken tenders, a surprisingly good take on a burger, and was forced out of a sheer fullness to miss out on several other options I would happily have tried any other day.

This is a restaurant review blog, and while I will extend that to street traders, I don’t think other vendors count. So I’ll just mention as an aside that I also bought some incredible chorizo & morcilla, and perhaps the best balsamic vinegar I’ve ever tasted.

Mexican Fried Chicken

I think possibly this stall wants for a more googleable name, but their food offering is already excellent. The good: bone-dry, super rock-hard-crispy coating around juicy, tender (clearly brined) chicken tenders, and you get a solid pile for £8. What’s more, it’s drizzled in chipotle mayo (smoky, savoury and slightly sweet) and sprinkled in chilli powder.

The okay but not amazing: the pico de gallo side lacked a little bit of freshness and zingyness; it was a bit flat. And more than that, it was just hard to combine with either the (decent) skin-on fries that sat under the chicken, or the chicken pieces itself. I think if you were going to have smaller pieces in a taco or a bun or something it’d make sense, but it was pointless in this form. Sadly they’d run out of guac (they were extremely popular while we were there) so we didn’t get to try that.

Rating: One medal.

The Patate

I tried The Patate out of pure curiosity, and thought it was a high risk idea. What they do is slow cook boeuf bourgignon, presumably the day before, and bring it along in a giant Le Creuset. When you want a “burger” they press it into something vaguely resembling a patty, grill it up so the sides are browned, cover it in a fat slab or two of cheese (in our case Raclette, but they also offer Camembert and a blue cheese), and serve it in a brioche bun.

When it comes to hamburgers I am a purist. Yes, you can experiment, but 99% of the time your experiment is going to turn out much worse than simply serving a piece of fatty beef mince with American cheese and some pickles. In fact, many of the London burger joints with the most airs and graces fall, in my mind, short of what you can get at McDonalds or Shake Shack—not to mention the really off-the-wall attempts in fancy restaurants.

But I was really surprised not just at how good this version is, but how much it actually tastes like a regular hamburger despite all the translated differences. Deeply beefy, with a mild cheese made for melting that spreads its lubrication and flavour around, and a no-frills mayo-based sauce. Very good stuff.

Their chips were even better, deeply imbued with seasoning to a degree that puts many other attempts to shame, and once again served with a generous covering of melted Raclette (if you enjoy cheese pulls then this is for you). It may not look like that much food, but on reflection it shouldn’t have shocked me so much that something this fat and protein dense was so filling.

Rating: One medal.

Maybe I was just lucky with my choices, but based on the reliability of my gut for judging culinary books by their covers, I’d say that Victoria Park Market offers even greater riches that those I sampled. Highly recommended—I will be back myself very soon.

Review: Zelman Meats, St. Paul’s

in Restaurants

Why is it so hard for restaurants to expand? So often do I have a meal at the second or third branch of a chain and find it lacklustre or not up to the standards I built up in my mind. And yesterday’s meal at Zelman Meats in St. Paul’s, the fourth branch of the proto-chain, was yet another case where the latest outpost of a restaurant brand did not impress me.

First, I’ll be clear that I really like and endorse what the whole group around Zelman is doing. I’ve never been to Goodman, and given that Knife in Clapham has the same hard-to-get meat supplier and costs half the price, I probably never will go, but it seems like what you want from a high-end steakhouse. I loved Rex & Mariano and when it was cruelly taken from us, I was a fan of its replacement, the original Zelman Meats in Soho. London needs more steak restaurants that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Basically, this restaurant group has its heart in the right place, and often delivers the goods.

And if Zelman Meats’s city branch was a cheap and cheerful Flat Iron affair, I’d probably be recommending it heartily. But if you’re going to spend at least £100 on dinner and drinks between two, you expect something special, at least if you’re me, and special is what Zelman didn’t deliver.

Look, maybe tempura does technically include any type of batter, I am no expert, but what I am expecting when I am offered tempura prawns is the gloriously light-coloured and light-textured batter familiar to all who have had it once. This was more like beer batter. Beer-battered prawns are a perfectly good thing, although these were slightly overcooked, but it is always frustrating when you don’t get what you expect.

As usual, the “holy fuck” mayo was basically just orange mayo, and I would have preferred that the lime flavour was in there, as wetting the batter with the lime segments sacrifices some of its crunch, and never gives you the distribution of flavour as you’re hoping for.

The burrata was a bit better. Smaller than the gigantic lumps you’re used to, but cheaper too, and that’s probably an overall better trade. I’d say it was considerably less wet and creamy, and therefore more like regular mozzarella than I’ve had before, but it did the job. The only real problem was a severe lack of the promised pesto (you can barely see it in the picture)—just a smearing underneath. Give us a bit more and let us decide if we want it all!

The chips ranged from excellent to completely undercooked. As ever, the parmesan and black truffle topping is a great idea, but I had an unshakeable sense that it was less truffly than I remembered. Obviously in a dish like this I don’t expect big thick shavings onto my plate—I’m only paying £8.50—but this had a great truffle smell without much of a discernible truffle taste. Maybe it was the end of a jar.

On the other hand, both sauces—béarnaise and chimichurri—were great. The chimichurri was a bit different to what I am used to (mainly because it was blended) but I found myself dipping and dipping till it was all gone.

But I’ve gone all this time without talking about what you came for, the steak. Now the good is that you buy per 100g—chateaubriand is £9.50/100g, and picanha is £6.50. That above is 300g of each, which is about enough for two people.

The steak was not bad. But we paid nearly £50; for that, it needed to be excellent—it needed to be worth five flat iron steaks from Flat Iron! And it just wasn’t.

Firstly, it was cooked inconsistently. There were big veins of grey “gradient” in the chateaubriand (left) around the nice medium rare parts, and the two end pieces were grey, tough, and grainy. Even if you are committed to grilling your steak from start to finish, there is no need for this, and if you are willing to cook the middle and the outside separately you can get perfect end to end medium rare every time. I can do it myself!

And secondly, it lacked flavour. Yes, we had sauces, but good steak tastes really good on its own. Chateaubriand is £25/kg (vs Zelman’s £95/kg) in Turner & George, the best butcher near me, and tastes really beefy. Obviously I do not object to restaurants charging more for food—they prepare it for me—but they are not adding anything close to £70 of value. Or they weren’t yesterday.

And so I left Zelman having had some decent, adequate stuff, but spending £42 a head for two courses without so much as a sip of booze. That’s not big bucks but it’s still a decent chunk of change for a not at all extravagant lunch! To go back to Knife, my bill there was just a little more and I drank a bottle of wine, ate three courses, snacks, bread, and much more. So yes, I was more than a little disappointed.

Rating: No medals.

Review: Daddy Bao, Tooting

in Restaurants

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: Pique-Nique, Bermondsey

in Restaurants

Note: Pique-Nique has stopped serving its chicken tasting menu. It may well still be a good restaurant, but it now serves typical French dishes at a mid-to-high-range price point, and we haven’t tasted anything on the current menu.

I’ll start with the most important point: Pique-Nique does the finest chicken I’ve eaten in London, and by extension, ever. It has a lovely and extremely French atmosphere, it’s very reasonably priced for what it is, and you will leave happy and full. All you really need to know is that you should go.

But since that would make for a fairly boring review, I’ll go into detail on exactly how they get rotisserie chicken so right, transmogrifying it from a solid but unexciting street food or takeaway option into an ambrosial delight.

The warm, crispy, chewy bread

First, it’s the chickens. People probably do spend too much time talking about where food comes from, possibly it’s just something to nerd out about and show off what you know. But Bresse chicken is a resounding blow in favour of caring about provenance.

These chickens live 120 days or so, compared to the supermarket standard 42, or 80-odd for the very highest-end free range chicken, making them the free range of free range. They roam around beautiful rolling hills and are deliberately fed only lightly so they seek out insects to eat. And it comes through. They are unimaginably deeply flavoured and delicious compared to regular chicken—a comparison that perhaps comes close is that the breast tastes, throughout, like normal chicken’s crispy skin. And the skin, well!

Mashed potato, girolles, and breast

Second, I think it’s the preparation. Everything is precise and perfect. Properly juicy chicken, presumably from the steady turning on the spit, but coupled with bone dry crispy skin. Maximally creamy and finely riced mashed potato. Served simply with morels and a creamy sauce. Heavily reduced red wine sauce; warm, crispy, chewy, pully-aparty French bread, a clear but powerfully, er, chicken-y consomme. Fluffy chestnut soufflé. You get the idea.

Chicken consomme

Third, I think it’s the whole approach. Simple, comforting, hearty, delicious. We ate the £41 Bresse chicken tasting menu. You start with a glorious little croquette of shredded chicken with a sweet-sour chutney of some sort, with a cute bone sticking out. Then you get bread with pate—just out of the oven and they keep offering you more until you eventually find a backbone of resistance. If, like me, you abhor liver pate, they just happen to have expertly browned butter in reserve, unmentioned.

Chicken croquettes

Then you get the consomme, which comes with offal on a stick above it. I don’t know if these people are geniuses or if they owe it to their extremely expensive poultry, but the gizzard, heart, and even that wobbly thing on top of the chicken’s head (yes we ate that) were scrumptious, again packed full of savoury depth and punch.

Thigh, drumstick, red wine reduction, and salad

After the consomme you get the aforementioned breast of the chicken. But you’re still going! Soon you are presented with the bouncy, firm thigh and leg and their skin, with a sharply-dressed salad and a shiny and lip-smacking winey jus. I, personally, would confit those chicken legs. I prefer that melt-away soft texture to the more aggressive meaty firmness here, but I’m sure others agree.

Chestnut soufflé

You even get to choose what dessert you’d like. We had an entirely anonymous chocolate fondant, no better or worse than one you’d get anywhere, and a glorious chestnut soufflé, totally changing my mind on whether they are just a way to ostentatiously display cooking skills.

For me, chicken has always been a second-tier meat. I believed it was more of a canvas for flavour than the main flavour itself. Well, Pique-Nique shows my old views for the distilled wrongness I now know them to be.

(Two medals.)

Review: Knife, Clapham

in Restaurants

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: Black Axe Mangal, Islington

in Restaurants

Usually I go to restaurants just the one time before I review them. I don’t think this is unfair. I always share dishes with dining companions, so I’ll usually managed to try a fair swathe of—or even most of—the menu. But I’m glad I went to Black Axe Mangal thrice before writing anything, because it’s gotten better every time, to the point where it’s an easily one of my very favourites and, since I live nearby, there is always a fighting chance I will consider going on a given evening.

Black Axe Mangal doesn’t take bookings, but it doesn’t need them because it’s tiny. It can fit about 16, squashed together, inside, and six or maybe eight outside on little painted metal tables if it’s warm. It has a giant wood-fired stone oven for pizza-esque “flatbreads”, and it always always plays very loud punk or metal. They are good primarily because they craft a glorious, awe-inspiring menu, and everything delivers on its promise, with the punchiest most blow-your-head-off flavour you’ve ever eaten. I promise.

Just look at that. Absolutely everything is something you’ve never tried before and want to try. And by the next time you’re there, even if it’s just a couple of months, it’ll be mostly different, the epitome of what you want in a “neighbourhood restaurant”: somewhere you want to—and can afford to go to—regularly.

Crispy fuckin rabbit was essentially a mutton roll, but with rabbit. It was cooked until tender, then pressed together, breaded, and fried. It came with a chunky red blob of spicy jarred peppers blended up, and a lime. It was perfect.

Fried pigs ears with black lime was basically pork scratchings or rinds but less fatty: just the brittle crispy crunch element. And once again it was powerfully flavoured, with just the right amount of salt (a lot) and the wincy citrusof black (i.e. dried out) lime. In a good way.

Black Axe Mangal like serving things with crisps. On an earlier visit I got ox cheek with them. This time they came with a beef tartare (extremely tender) with bone marrow. If you’re reading this team, next time I want more bone marrow. Its flavour was just a hint, rather than the overpowering beefiness I wanted. But it provided a wonderful fatty lubricant. I don’t know what was on top.

The best dish of the night, and of a previous night, when the same spice coated chicken wings, was the half guinea fowl. I’m telling you: you need to try this mission spice. It’s spicy, numbing, salty, umami, and just… delicious all at once. It’s so full of pep and vigour that your eyes are almost watering. It kind of punches you. I’ve really never had anything like it—apparently they use special sichuan peppers that are much better than the kind that plebs like me buy in Chinatown. But however they do it, they know how to fry poultry till the outside is crisp, yet the inside is juicy, without being fatty or greasy. This is the optimal guinea fowl, I’ll put my name to that.

I’ve eaten a whole lot of other stuff there. Pictured above is a lamb offal flatbread. But I won’t go on about it: the story is the same. Lots of flavour. The correct price. Interesting ideas you haven’t eaten before. If it’s bread: warm and fluffy and right out of the oven. I love this place and I feel rather lucky it’s more or less the closest restaurant to my flat.

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.

Go to Top