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Review: Butchers Korean BBQ, New Malden

in Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My wraps are mostly a success.

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

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

Rating: One medal.

Review: The Other Naughty Piglet, Victoria

in Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Two medals.

Review: Temper City, Bank

in Restaurants

You reviewed us on our soft launch with a 50% discount ? You massive, massive prick. The point of a soft launch is to iron out problems, hence the discount. Please go fuck yourself you unprofessional tosser.

Update: Temper’s owner disagreed with our review, and had the above to say. I stand by the review, and think it’s clear that the price/portion offering is not affected by the fact that it was a soft launch. As I said, if the dishes were significantly larger, or significantly cheaper, I would recommend the place. You can decide for yourself.

My dinner at the original Temper, in Soho, was probably my favourite meal of 2016—and I told founder Neil Rankin as much over the bar as he went about chopping and smoking large bits of goat in the restaurant’s shiny and beautiful central kitchen.

But I was not impressed with its new sister restaurant Temper City, and not for any quirks to do with the fact I went during a soft launch. The staff were friendly and efficient, and if some of them were still working on their knowledge of the menu then who cares, that’s what you expect. The kitchen got everything right, I’m sure, and when they didn’t they told us in advance that they were redoing our dishes. These sorts of growing pains are why they charge you half price and even if they didn’t they would hardly bother me.

No, it was the approach in general that didn’t quite come off. It certainly wasn’t bad, but had I paid full price I would have felt a little bit ripped off.

To begin with, I was surprised they had gone for a curry-based concept. I so confidently assumed that it’d be a rerun of the huge-smoked-pieces-of-quality-meat concept in the Soho original that I didn’t follow any of the news around the opening; I just booked as soon as booking lines were opened, and slavered away happily in anticipation. Actually, the curry-ness of the place can be overstated. There’s still a huge smoker and extractor fan in the middle, and they still offer substantial meat chunks with deep smoky flavours.

It was the price-to-portion ratio that confused me most.

These “crab beignet” puff pastries were delicate, expert, and came with a lovely sweet jam and sour cream, or maybe mayo, but they were £8.50! This is for something with almost no substance and the size of a man’s thumb.

The “Korean haggis”—a mix of coarsely minced or finely chopped duck offal with gochuchang, radishes and chillies, was more substantial, and was delicious and fun to eat wrapped in baby gem as well. But it was £12 for two or three solid mouthfuls! Come on!

The curry plates boasted an array of ingredients, and array they did have, but most of them were pointless. The tomatoes were a bit sad, the potatoes were a bit bland, and while the crunchy sweet nutty salad was lovely, I’m not sure how it combined with the others. The paratha was unbelievably pillowy, but there was barely a handful of (really excellent) goat, and we started with little idea of how to combine the ingredients together in more lettuce wraps, hidden under the mint. Plus it was £17. Is this supposed to be a main that fills you up? I think you’d need two of them, making a meal here an incredible indulgence.

The lamb skewers with kimchi were great, but—I know, I’m a broken record—they were £15. One of them was minced lamb (cheap), and while the other had two substantial cubes of lovely meat, it also had two big pieces of kidney (dirt cheap). Is it really unfeasible to offer a third? I can’t deny the loveliness of the sauce, where kimchi was balanced against a mild mayonnaise or some other creamy base.

We opted for peach, condensed milk, and roti for dessert. It’s a good combo, but I’m not sure they’re quite ready with their roti—these seem like the kind of thing that might get better. It was a bit flat; it didn’t have the bouncy life of a (much cheaper, much bigger) one I had at Roti King just weeks ago.

I hate to criticise Temper because I am a huge huge fan of the approach in so many ways. And I even kinda hope this one does well—maybe prices have to be higher in the City. But I won’t be going along at full price. I’ll be going for Sunday lunch at the original spot. (No medals.)

Review: Craft, North Greenwich

in Restaurants

Up until Craft opened, there was absolutely no prospect of an interestingly good meal by the O2 Arena. I mean, that wasn’t the point of the O2, and it’s not clear to me that anyone really minded—events usually start too early to enjoy a proper restaurant meal anyway, you’re perfectly happy to have something cheap and cheerful.

But Craft opened to much aplomb in mid-2015, with a chef whose name was bandied about as if you were supposed to have independently heard of him (well I have now), and it was widely loved. People especially liked taking videos of themselves bashing open the hard clay coating their whole roasted duck—something I’m not criticising as gimmicks really do make things fun. Sadly it’s off the menu at the moment.

Craft does a pretty good job of creating atmosphere despite the fact it’s a three story glass-edged blob plopped in the middle of an empty, windy, usually-empty plaza—the gap between North Greenwich tube and the arena itself. The room was very expensively bedecked by someone who is apparently famous and world-conquering, but it’s not really to my taste: something about it is janky and forced.

We plumped for the £35 short tasting menu—there’s a £55 option as well—which would really be a good deal if the food hadn’t been disappointing: snacks, endless fantastic bread (chewy flatbread straight out of the oven, competent airy sourdough, and cultured fermented-tasting butter), and three courses proper, all solid portions and high end ingredients.

They do everything, seemingly, in-house, which does impress me. The ham was consistently textured in a way that supermarket stuff never does: it didn’t come apart in sections and you could bite right through. The middle one—whipped roe with caviar—was probably the nicest and most interesting thing we ate: that sea floor graininess you are looking for. I honestly can’t remember the third.

The starter was a cheddar custard with crumbs and veg. It was OK—I think I’m biased because I never want my cheese as custard, I want it as cheese. It was a bit like welsh rarebit.

Both of the mains were severely underseasoned and totally unimpressive. Yes, this hake was cooked well, but without seemingly ever being introduced to any salt it tasted of nothing at all. I cannot believe this is just my tastebuds failing me. What’s more, the accompanying veg (with the exception of burnt hispi cabbage, which literally cannot be bad) was just veg, like if you’d scraped out your fridge leftovers and lightly boiled them simply to make up space in a weeknight dinner.

The beef was worse. It was a decent-sized and well-cooked flat iron steak, and it was tender. That’s what I can say in its favour. But it was also drastically underflavoured,and tasted like the grey beef in a school dinner. I didn’t really know you could make high-end beef taste this mediocre. The broth was like a really weak watered stock cube, with a good deal less in the way of punch. It was lukewarm almost immediately. The less said about the random assorted veg the better.

I didn’t finish my dessert. It was extremely bland and commonplace carrot cake that was literally just the ginger cake you buy for £1 in a supermarket. And it came with sour cream. Sour cream! The ice cream was… ice cream. If it was specially home crafted rare milk ice cream it didn’t show.

My companion doesn’t like hazelnut, and they were kind enough to let her pick a different dessert (in fact, the service was extremely good throughout). It was rhubarb jam on some thin, brittle meringue sheets. I just don’t like this kind of meringue, it seems to dry the mouth out with a pervasive sandy dustiness. So take my opinion with a pinch of salt. The rhubarb jam had all the tangy rhubarb flavour seemingly sucked out of it, and could have done with more sweetness.

I had heard only good things about Craft, and every element seemed to have been thought through: design, sourcing, concept, menu, pricing, even website design. But I would not recommend anyone go. Even if a chef had a day off, that’s the sort of quality control that a restaurant charging at least £100 for dinner for two should not accept. I always thought I could guess if a place would be good based only on cues available before you get to the restaurant—I hope this is the exception that proves the rule.

Rating: Avoid.

Review: Tozi, Victoria

in Restaurants

For some of us, it’s difficult to visit a restaurant without having read at least one review first. There’s nothing I enjoy less than a bad meal, so to avoid that I rely on a handful of trusted friends, bloggers and tweeters to guide me. It works pretty well, but following the herd has its price: there must be dozens of good places out there that just never really break through.

Tozi is one of those places. Just off Wilton Street near Victoria station, home to the ridiculous (Loco Mexicano, Preto churrascaria) and the sublime (A Wong), I must have passed it dozens of times while it’s been open over the last five years, but when I was invited to eat there I assumed it was brand new.

The room is smart and airy, and mostly full on a Monday evening. The menu is mostly Venetian-style “cichetti” sharing plates, though we are here to try their new, one-week only Piemontese menu. We ask for all of the Piemontese menu, with accompanying wines, and a few dishes that the waiter recommends from the main menu.

Our first two dishes are a salami whose name I cannot remember and Testun al Barolo, a sheep and goat’s cheese packed in grapes. The salami is fatty and powerfully meaty, like a terrine, though the slices are perhaps a little too thin. The cheese is amazing, with the grapey sweetness mingling with the sharp goats cheese to create an incredibly rich combination unlike any cheese I’ve tasted before.

Next up is the first Piemontese dish, carpaccio of beef topped with pickled mushrooms and parmesan. I usually find carpaccio a bit too elegant and dull, and despite the chef’s best efforts with the pickled mushrooms this did leave me slightly underwhelmed. The ingredients were flawless, though, the beef being astonishingly tender and as flavorsome as thin, raw beef fillet can be. This was from a “Fassona” cow, a Piemontese breed famed in Italy for its tenderness.

Onto the raviolis. One dish is three large, ricotta-stuffed packets of ravioli, the other a Piemotese Agnolotti del Plin of much smaller stuffed bits of pasta, about the size and look of a whelk. Both come in a “butter sauce”, which is fabulously delicious. The first is swimming in the stuff, and the utility monster in me licks the plate clean. The second is more restrained to give the black truffle some space, and as you want with black truffle the aroma pervades every bite. Yum.

Our last savoury dish is Brasato al Barolo, a beef rump braised in a (quite expensive) Piemontese wine, served with mashed potatoes. OK: it looks like Irish stew. But it was a testament to the power of cooking with really, really good ingredients. The beef melted in your mouth, the sauce packed a powerful and complex flavour punch that betrayed hours of braising, shot through with parsley to lift things with a little lightness. And the potatoes were delicate and fluffy. I hated sharing it.

Finally, a chocolate bonet, which was like a chocolate creme caramel, with cream and Amaretto syrup. I’m not really a dessert person, and though this was clearly very well put together it felt a little bit of a come down from much of the other food we’d eaten. The real star of the course was the digestif we drank – Chinato Borgogno, which tasted a bit like a Campari mixed with a light tawny port. Bitter and sweet at the same time and truly unlike any other alcohol I’ve tasted.

I did not have high expectations going to Tozi. How could an upmarket Italian I’d never heard of, five minutes from Victoria station, be any good? But it was. It had confidence in itself, enough to let excellent ingredients speak for themselves and to present the food as it would be done in Italy, rather than with gimmicky twists. Though the Piemontese menu was a one-off, it would not surprise me to see some of the items added to the normal menu.

The big catch, and I’m afraid there is one, is that these ingredients come at a price: our meal would have been £101, had it not been comped and if we’d opted for a bottle of wine instead of the wine pairings (as well as a glass of the Chinato), and that’s for a fairly modest amount of food. That’s a pain for me, but it isn’t for everyone, and there’s something very nice about a place that refuses to compromise on the quality of its inputs. In an area not exactly brimming with talent and dominated by obnoxious, overpriced chains, Tozi’s quiet self-confidence deserves a wider audience.

Rating: One medal.

I was invited to review Tozi.

Review: Anglo, Perilla & much much more

in Features/Restaurants

The SUL site has been quiet, but that doesn’t mean we’ve not been eating out and updating the map with our favourite spots. Sometimes you just don’t find yourself with a whole review’s worth of things to say about places, or the time to say them. So I’m just going to round up the dozen or so new places I’ve tried in the quiet winter months.

Anglo, Farringdon

I wanted to go to Anglo since it opened. It’s obvious, but there’s something luxurious and special about an endless progression of courses. However, most of the restaurants that are designed around trying lots of different dishes in succession, rather than simultaneously, are prohibitively expensive. I’m very happy for the people who can afford £100 tasting menus, but they do not include me.

Anglo’s £45 price point, on the other hand, is occasionally affordable. And for that price, at Anglo, you are served three little tasters—which seem much more generous and course-like than the snacks served elsewhere—four savouries, three sweets, and bread that’s easily as good as any of the other courses, so let’s count it: eleven different things to eat. That’s a bargain.

Compared to my favourite restaurants at this price point (i.e. The Dairy) I didn’t love everything I was served. A lot of it was interesting rather than comforting. An example is the burnt leek tartlet below, which was a play of textures: a dazzlingly light and airy set of shavings (?) on top and an impressively thin and crisp-yet-soft many-layered pastry base. It was fun to eat, but not delicious, and most of the vegetable dishes followed the same pattern: intriguing, but perhaps not always a success.

By contrast, the meat dishes were universally satisfying, in a savoury umami way. Beef with smoked emulsion and turnip was exactly the sort of steadying dish I needed in the middle of the meal, with its chunk of… beefy native breed steak. I can imagine going back. (One medal.)

Perilla, Stoke Newington

By contrast, all of the combinations at Perilla came off perfectly, and two could probably eat dinner for £100 including drinks and service. It was a succession of ideas you’d never consider yourself, but that seemed to just… work.

Pictured is the red mullet with lardo, a zingy vinegary emulsion, and chopped bits of dressed radicchio. Radicchio is extremely bitter, even to someone who can’t taste PTC like me, but in the dish the whole outweighed the sum of its parts. When combined with the intensely salty and savoury cured fat, the sweet and sharp vinaigrette, and the warming fish flesh, it was a noticeable, but blunted high and clean flavour.

Waiting staff are friendly and helpful, the ambiance is dim and buzzy in the right way, and it’s also in walking distance of my house. Wins all round. (One medal.)

Aster, Victoria

Victoria was pretty much a dead zone for restaurants until the last three months, but in 2017 it’s probably had more good openings than anywhere else. There’s a Bleecker Burger, a Shake Shack, a Franco Manca, and a Bone Daddies is coming, to begin with, but it’s not just chains. There’s Hai Cenato, a new Jason Atherton, there’s The Other Naughty Piglet, there’s Lorne, there are a few giant but fairly unexciting-looking all-day brasserie type places. And there’s Aster, a Nordic-influenced place, which has opened to little aplomb.

Aster is pretty ambitious, doing all the sorts of stuff that, in general, make a place good. And it does it fairly competently—perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s yet another outpost of the imperialistic D&D group. This dish below was an excellent combination of flavours: milk-fed lamb with lingonberry jam and a cabbage leaf surprisingly filled with moist and savoury lamb mince.

But it fell down on some of the details: I was warned that the lamb would be pink, but it was white; the fat was slightly rubbery and insufficiently rendered; and there was none of the browning, caramelisation, and crisping-up I’d want on the outside. But it was still a very nice dish.

The desserts were even busier: I ate blood orange jam & curd, almond cake, rhubarb sorbet, and so many individual nice inputs really does make the dessert more fun. For the price, I wouldn’t go regularly, but it’s by no means or in any way a bad place to go. (No medals.)

Comptoir Gascon, Clerkenwell

Comptoir Gascon has been going a while, compared to most restaurants I go to: its (positive) Jay Rayner review comes from about 2005. To keep afloat all that time, I wagered it must have been decent, and based on what we had I’d say it was just that: decent. Generically competent steaks, an indulgent foie gras burger as a starter, and acceptable puddings. A caveat is that it’s supposedly a duck restaurant, and none of us ate duck—we booked to have steak—so perhaps the duck is really where it stands out. But on the back of the beef, no medals. (No medals.)

Mangal 2, Dalston

Some people will tell you that basically all the Turkish grill restaurants on and around Kingsland Road, in Haggerston, Dalston and Stoke Newington, are good. Others say there are especially good, and less good ones. Mangal 2 is famous because of its bolshy and amusing Twitter account. I’d say the food here was solid, but for me (a neophyte in this cuisine in any case) Umut 2000 just down the road sets the standard.

Everything we had did the job, and there were even some novel dishes, like the below—not a fish, despite the mouth-like slit at the end; in fact chunks of lamb inside a charred aubergine—but it just wasn’t anything special. Yes, pieces of deep fried chicken and grilled lamb are enjoyable, but all I could think about was the juicy, full flavoured, and extremely good value offering at its competitor. (No medals.)

Tandoor Chop House, Covent Garden

Based only on my meal at Tandoor Chop House I’d be a zealous convert. It’s a simple offering: pieces of meat, cooked pink, in Indian spices, with smoky and sweet dips. What more do you want, except tender tandoored cuts of beef and lamb (and chicken, though we didn’t have any)? Well, maybe butter naan, but they do that too. You can even see into the kitchen and into the gigantic pots with skewers poking out of them. However, the experience Chris Pople had when the head chef was on holiday makes me extremely wary of going back. (No medals.)

Umut 2000, Dalston

My favourite ocakbasi as of this point. £30 for the special which is infinite bread, a huge amount of meze, and a pile of meat that is absolutely unfinishable for two people. That’s £30 between you, not £30 each. You get grilled chicken pieces, minced chicken kebab, minced lamb kebab, chicken on the bone, lamb on the bone, and grilled lamb pieces. It’s juicy, meaty, and has that coal barbecued exterior that you’re looking for. Highly recommended. (One medal.)

Lucky Chip, Dalston

I went into Lucky Chip optimistic: no, I hadn’t seen a review from one of the more reliable reviewers, like Burgaffair; no, I don’t think that burger places should offer hot dogs—there’s absolutely no reason to believe they can do both well; and no, I don’t understand why you’d want a ‘burgers and wine’ restaurant (although the beer selection is very good too). In fact, although I did go in optimistic, maybe it was just because I escaped off the horrific Ridley Road market where Lucky Chip is located. In any case, it’s mediocre all round. I could do all of the elements better myself. (Avoid.)

Yamagoya, Soho

Yamagoya is taking up the top floor of Shuang Shuang, the conveyor belt Chinese hotpot place that opened to fairly significant aplomb, but that barely anyone talks about now. They want their own spot, but for the time being they’re a pop-up, serving slightly overpriced but solid ramen. Something I’d never had before was the chicken chashu, which is like pork chashu, except drier and blander (without actually reaching dryness and blandness). (One medal.)

Tacos El Pastor, London Bridge

I’m going to go back to Tacos El Pastor before I make any rating “official” but on the strength of the quick lunch I had there I do actually want to go back. Everything has that pickled onion and lime balance between sweetness and sour acidity, but somehow coming in a hundred different ways from different fruits and salsas and meat rubs. And of course theres a lot of juicy, tender, and smoky slow-cooked meat. It’s hard not to like.

You know how Jay Rayner does those little bullet points at the bottom of his pieces? Well I’m going to copy him here with some (even) shorter comments on other places I’ve eaten recently.

  • Casse-Croûte, Bermondsey I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t love Casse-Croûte. It’s basically like teleporting to France. It’s buzzing, full of kids staying up well past a British bed time, and it sells only rustic regional French food like whole cheeses baked in pastry and cassoulet with confit duck and bits of slow cooked pork belly with the bone still in. It even has champagne and cremant on tap! I went back recently and had an even better meal than my first visit.
  • Florentine, South Lambeth Florentine is a new opening that I was tempted to for brunch (I don’t see the point of brunch & this was my first ever in London) by a 50% off offer. It seems decently ambitious and competent, with space for near-infinite covers, hundreds of staff and different kitchen items, and a location (right by South Lambeth tube) that presents little in the way of restaurant competition. But all I did was eat a gigantic four person breakfast including an entire ostrich egg (24 hen eggs worth of egg), but between two.
  • Som Saa, Spitalfields I first went to Som Saa when it was a pop-up at Climpson’s Arch nearly three years ago, but never managed to make it to the real restaurant in Spitalfields. But Sam kept bugging me and bugging me and bugging me, going back again and again and telling me it was the best restaurant in town, and eventually I made it. They really do produce food as good as the best places I visited in Bangkok recently.
  • Picture, Fitzrovia I’ve now been to the Fitzrovia branch of Picture three times! This time was me seeking after another deal: it was half off due to the tube strike; some diners had had to cancel. Picture is less experimental than say, Anglo, but I think this works to its credit: every or nearly every dish is something to enjoy on a simple, happy level. I’d go back a fourth time, but perhaps I’ll try their Marylebone branch out first.
  • A Wong, Pimlico I have something of an obsession with A Wong, and I do think it will earn three medals soon, when I finally go and get its Peking Duck special menu. Indeed, it may well be my favourite restaurant, and is certainly in my top ten. I’ve been for the regular food, I’ve been for the cheap lunch/early dinner menu with work, and now I’ve been for the dim sum, only available at lunch. They really are amazingly special and expertly prepared, especially the duck egg yolk custard dessert dumpling, which is the best pudding I’ve had in a year.
  • Ramen Sasuke, St. James Sasuke’s other joint in Soho is on our map because I’ve been there three or four times and had lovely tonkotsu without even bothering to try their soy or fish-based ramens. Their meat is always a bit fatty, but it’s a nice contrast to the other options out there. But the dish I had at the newer Panton Street one, next to the mighty Kanada-Ya, would push me to a strong avoid. Oily thin broth, packet-seeming noodles; just rubbish stuff. I didn’t finish it.
  • Bleecker Street, Victoria Bleecker is my favourite burger spot, and since they’ve opened a location right by Victoria station, near my work, I have eaten there at least five times. £10 may seem a lot of money for a burger (their signature Bleecker Black—you can get a cheaper burger for £6 if you like) because it is a lot of money for a burger. But it’s worth every penny: medium rare patties, unbelievably juicy and tender because they are 50% fat; soft crumbly Irish black pudding; American cheese; consistent sesame bun that can take the Grease punishment without falling apart. It’s all there. Among the best food in the world.
  • Flat Iron, Shoreditch I’d been to the Soho and Covent Garden Flat Irons many times, and the Shoreditch one does not depart from the basic formula: £10 for a flat iron steak, cooked a limited number of ways, £3.50 for (glorious) beef dripping chips, free side salad, cheap cocktails. If you want it to be, then Flat Iron is a cheap—nay, excellent value—steak house. But if you want it to be, it’s also a city-beating high end steakhouse: we ordered from the specials menu and boy oh boy the wagyu bavette we eat was surely the nicest steak I’ve ever had. Indeed, even though we’d over-ordered to begin with, we immediately ordered a second one when we finished.

Review: Som Saa, Spitalfields

in Restaurants

Back in my very first Straight Up London review I worried that Som Saa, in its past iteration as a pop-up in London Fields, might never reach the greatness that a few of its dishes suggested it might be capable of.

Now, Som Saa has set up permanent shop in Spitalfields. Three visits later, I feel qualified to say it’s done more than just ditch the crap dishes: it’s probably now my favourite restaurant in London.

I don’t usually care for cocktails, but since you’ll usually be waiting for a while at Som Saa (we had a 90-minute wait for our table on a Friday night, which we could leave after putting our name down for, but they advise coming back fifteen minutes or so before your table’s ready), and the beer is relatively pricey, you might be tempted. In my experience the stand out choice is the “Dragon’s Milk”, made with sticky rice rum and condensed milk and quite unlike any other cocktail I’ve ever had. Others aren’t bad, but aren’t remarkable.

The menu recommends that you order four or five dishes between two people, and they vary pretty substantially in size. First up for us was the grilled pork neck with “shrimp paste spiked dipping sauce” (£8). The slices of pork were pink and juicy in the middle, shot through with a vein of fat, and with a crunchy exterior. It’s hard to share food like this: the dipping sauce was an explosion of savoury and sour flavours of shrimp and lime juice that gave an acidic edge to the meatiness of the pork.

Som Tam “Bangkok style”, the green papaya salad that’s basically ubiquitous in Thailand, was fiery hot, crunchy fresh and peanutty. We mopped up its sauce with a side of sticky rice. This was the least adventurous dish we tried – after the highly adventurous “isaan style” som tam that reminded me of rotting fish, it was enjoyable to try a dish I’ve had dozens of times done to near-perfection.

Funnily enough, a dish of pork, green beans and morning glory (£9.5) stir fried in a meat broth was one of my favourites. The pork had thick and crunchy crackling, but the broth itself was really impressively meaty and a little liquoricey, lightly flavoured in a way that juxtaposed nicely against the rest of the meal’s punch-you-in-the-face flavours.

The highlight, always, is the deep fried whole seabass. This is served in a similar sauce to the pork neck’s dipping sauce, and it’s a joy to break off bits of crunchy-skinned, moist fish to mop up this liquid with. The gigantic mound of coriander and roasted rice powder adds to the flavour and gives bitefuls an explosively fresh taste. At £16.50 for a whole sea bass, I think for the money this is probably the best dish you can get anywhere in London at the moment.

Green curry with salted goat (£14) was, like the som tam, an example of a classic dish done to perfection – not sweet or coconutty like some green curries I’m used to, but a thick and rich stew of Thai spices and flavours with big, fatty hunks of goat meat and jelly bean-sized Thai aubergines that popped with a bitterness that gave a new dimension to the curry’s flavour.

I’ve now tried nearly everything on the menu at Som Saa, and there are very few misfires, even for a place where a misfire is still a cut above anything most Thai restaurants can manage. Everything about Som Saa is a pleasure: the room is big and open, with fun 20th Century Thai pop art on the walls, and the staff are friendly and chatty. At £95 for two including drinks and service, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.

Only Camberwell’s Silk Road also keeps me coming back again and again for the same things. It’s the place I’d take someone if I wanted to show them the food I love, and there’s nothing better I can say about it than that.

Rating: Three medals.

Review: Breddos, Clerkenwell

in Restaurants

The nice thing about writing for a food blog is that underwhelming meals aren’t as disappointing as they would be otherwise. You have something to write about. If everyone else you read about food liked it, even better.

So it was with Breddos in Clerkenwell, a taco restaurant that is the new home of a very popular street food stand. I’m only aware of one good Mexican place in London, which is Strutton Ground’s Santana Grill (also street food), but after nice reviews from Chris Pople and Marina O’Loughlin I was excited to add to my list.

The room is pretty standard “London pop-up” style with concrete floors and spartan chairs and I’d guess about thirty covers. They’ve really done the street-food-turned-good thing – they already have a handsome-looking recipe book for sale on the wall. We didn’t have to wait long, even though it was Saturday night. Beers are reasonable at £3.50 for two-thirds of a pint for a deliciously zingy house IPA, and in general the pricing was quite fair – tacos were £3.50-£4.00 each.

Pork carnitas taco

Our first taco, pork carnitas, was immediately a let-down. It looked the part but the pork seemed to have been basically unflavoured and hadn’t been cooked long enough to break down into individual strands of pork. The result was an underwhelming pile of pork bits on a corn tortilla with some underflavoured green salsa, chopped onion and coriander. It just didn’t have much going on – the taco itself was excellent with real bite and a complex corn flavour, but there was no cohesion to what was on top and no real flavour other than pork. Meh.

Oh well – nowhere’s perfect, and I am used to truly excellent pork carnitas. Onto the next round – organic egg with macademia nut mole, pollo asado and kung pao pork belly. All three suffered from the same problems as the carnitas. They were dry, bland and seemed like some sauce was missing from each of them, one that would bring their ingredients together and give them some juiciness and flavour. How do you make a boring kung pao taco? There were the hallmark flavours of Sichuanese food – the numbing, fruity pepper and the freshly fiery bird’s eye chilli. But it just felt unfinished. All these were a little bit meanly portioned for the price, too – for £3.50 a pop I’d like to have more than three bites, please.

Masa fried chicken tacos were much better. Each one had a big, crispy chunk of chicken deep fried in corn dough, arched like a leaping fish out of its taco. They suffered from the bland dryness problem a bit less, too – the habanero sauce that came drizzled over them was creamy, hot and had a rich chilli flavour. These were a little more substantially portioned, too, but they still weren’t all that much for £4 each.

If there’s one thing that Breddos has made a name for itself with, it’s the fish tacos. And yes, they were superb. Each one came topped with a torpedo of battered white fish fillet, really good, fresh fish that actually tasted like fish, which is a rarity for white fish in London. I think it was haddock, based on the texture, but it might as well have been sea bass – the flavour was that good. These were advertised as coming with a chipotle-lime mayonnaise but I’m fairly sure it was actually that habanero sauce – whatever. Why did these work, where the other tacos didn’t? It was because the fish itself was moist enough and stood out enough to let the other flavours compliment it, instead of either dominating it or being absent altogether.

Annoyingly, there was about a fifteen minute wait for our last dish, the melted cheese queso fundido served in a cast iron ramekin on a little layer of crumbled sausage meat. I know Breddos is new but it’s not fun to have a massive gap at the end of your meal, especially when the dish you’re waiting for is being served to other people who arrived later than you. Oh well. It came with big thick potato chips which were strong enough to scoop up big gobs of cheese. The queso was a little underseasoned and it didn’t really live up to Ted Cruz’s promises, but it was as gooey as it looked and if it had been served at the start of the meal I probably would have enjoyed it more.

Both Pople and O’Loughlin raved about how punchy the flavours were, but the dreary lack of punch was my biggest complaint. So what happened? My best guess is that Breddos is having teething problems, and maybe even got a bit spooked by the Guardian review (which came out the day we went) and decided to tone things down a bit. It wasn’t terrible, the fish tacos were impressive, but I left feeling unsatisfied and – even after eating half of my dining companion’s food – underfed. I had high hopes for Breddos, but unless you’re really dying for fish tacos, I wouldn’t bother.

Rating: No medals. (Try something from Santana Grill instead, and pray that they get their own restaurant some day too.)

Review: Temper, Kiln, and Smokestak

in Restaurants

There are tens of thousands of restaurants in London. Even if you spend an outsized fraction of your disposable income on eating out—as I do—it’s impossible to keep up with more than a sliver of the ones you want to go to most.

I have four or five lists on my phone of the places I want to visit most. And when I discover somewhere particularly good (as Kiln, Smokestak, and Temper all are) I want to go back—not just because it’s a good meal and eating out is a great pleasure, but also because I haven’t tried everything on the menu yet. How can I have reliable opinion if there’s something they cook I have yet to eat.

A huge number of widely-hyped restaurants opened in 2016. I have yet to visit Perilla, Ellory, either iteration of Bao, the new (or any) Barrafina, The Laughing Heart, Padella, Som Saa’s permanent location, Sardine, The Frog, Anglo, The Woodford, or Frenchie, let alone dozens of other, less exciting, but still interesting openings. By next year, I’ll be even further behind.

But I did manage to get to three of those I most wanted to visit, and hopefully you are less obsessively completist than me, and you can simply enjoy these lovely places without worrying you’re missing out on the others.

Kiln, Soho

I was super excited about Kiln. I don’t know what it was that made it so obvious it was going to be great. It’s from people behind the Smoking Goat, which I love, but it wasn’t just that. I was so excited I queued up to go on their first night, when they were offering a free set menu.

Everything was excellent—we started with lamb skewers that were actually better than those at the almighty Silk Road in Camberwell—and it maintained that standard. The fat is jammed together with incredibly tender pieces of protein, grilled above charcoal, and rubbed with cumin and chilli powder. And you pay £2.90 for two of them.

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I don’t quite understand how they achieve such reasonable prices (dishes that are basically small mains go in the range £6 to £8, unless they’re using some expensive seafood ingredient). Perhaps it’s the fact there are only a few tables (reservable for parties of 4+) and most everyone else sits at the bar.

They operate a queueing system where you don’t actually have to be there: put your name down and they give you a link to an online counter, showing you how far you are from the front. We went off to have a drink somewhere else in the two hours we had to kill.

Even more challenging dishes work well. River fish is in a gritty, intensely-flavoured broth that somehow tastes like the soily edge of a riverbed… in a good way. You think that the pork belly and brown crab rice noodles—warmly savoury—are good as they are but they come with a sweet and refreshing green sauce (whose provenance I can’t divine) that’s so good you just have to lick its serving bowl clean.

Everything is fantastic. The place is buzzing. Staff are effective and not overbearing. The menu is a delight, changing regularly. Did I say that the pricing is rather competitive. Go asap. (Two medals.)

Temper, Soho

Apparently, everyone else has and had heard of Neil Rankin, the man behind Temper, but I had not. So I did not realise that I was chatting with the proprietor—wearing a red trucker hat—when I ate at Temper. Either way, I’m glad I told him that his eatery was my favourite opening of the year, because it is. It ticks every box that I’ve asked for in a restaurant.

Meat is sold by the 100g, and they tell you the (rare) breed. They put MSG in their ketchup. You can sprinkle bits of fried and ground up pork scratching on your food. They grill large slabs of flesh over basically open fires, in an open kitchen right in the middle of the room. They use animal fats in their vegetable dishes. Their menu fits (easily) on one page. They even base their cocktails around mezcal.

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The theme is flatbreads and meat. Basically you buy (smoked, medium rare, tender, extremely meaty) bits of meat, then add sauces and “sprinkles”, sort-of wrap them up, and eat. This, alone, would be enough. But there are also sides—beef fat potatoes utterly covered in raclette cheese was one of the highlights—and in keeping with the theme, starter tacos which range even further (e.g. blowtorched mackerel).

Eating dinner in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure, but sometimes it’s a glorious all-out reminder of why life is good. My meal at Temper was one of those. (Two medals.)

Smokestak, Shoreditch

Smokestak is an opening in the same vein as Kiln and Temper: long pedigree of previous ventures (in this case, years running a street food stall); widely hyped by the London food crowd; and in possession of a sort-of gimmick. In Smokestak’s case it’s the gigantic, gleaming, smoker in the middle of the room.

I think others have said that Smokestak is London barbecue food coming of age, and I agree. I remember a time when I’d never heard of pulled pork—when I was eighteen and I stumbled into a colonial canteen in the middle of nowhere in Virginia—and totally bowled over by the food. Now, it’s ubiquitous and usually shit. But you can get excellent barbecue in Shotgun, Pitt Cue, and many non-specialist restaurants have smokers and know how to use them.

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Smokestak possibly doesn’t do the best brisket in London (although it comes very close, and will serve you a reasonable portion for £8) but it is a very solid all round addition to the scene. Sweet sticky smoky bbq pig tails were crunchy goodness, but my absolute favourite dish was smoked girolles on beef dripping toast. It came in a jus whose deep powerful flavour must have come from litres of stock, reduced to almost nothing. I will go back. (One medal.)

Restaurant round-up, November 2016 edition

in Features/Restaurants

In the footsteps of Ben’s last post, here are some restaurants I’ve visited lately but didn’t get round to reviewing properly. I second his condemnation of Gaucho’s rubbish ‘divine bovine’ event, but differ on Chick’n Sours in Covent Garden, whose sides are mostly very good and whose chicken seemed pretty good, albeit not as good as the Dalston branch.

Mamalan, Shoreditch

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Mamalan does “Beijing-style street food” at London-style prices. There are quite a few of these dotted around so I went to the new Shoreditch branch’s soft launch for 50% off. It was a bit of a let down: the food was mostly cooked well, in terms of texture, but far too bland in terms of flavour. For example, chicken wings were fried to a crisp, but had no seasoning worth talking about. Beef noodle soup had some well-stewed beef, but lacked the sort of rich flavour you need from a broth (oh, and the noodles were overcooked). (No medals.)

Salvation in Noodles, Dalston

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I rushed through my dinner here to get to a gig I was going to, so I don’t want to judge it too harshly. For a place as hyped-up as Salvation I didn’t think it did anything special. Phu Quoc wings were very crispy and the fish sauce they were tossed in gave them a deep and unusual savoury flavour. My pho was pretty average – worse and less generous than the pho I can get at Mien Tay in Clapham. My companion enjoyed her noodle salad quite a lot, though. But are summer rolls supposed to have a big load of rice in them? What a crappy dish, if so. These were £5 for two and were at least 50% cold rice. Maybe that flies in Hanoi but this is Dalston, man. (No medals.)

Hakkasan, Mayfair

I had heard good things about Hakkasan and was excited to go with someone who’d also heard good things. It was so disappointing. The food was barely above the standard of a typical Chinatown Cantonese place – and bear in mind that this is an extremely expensive restaurant. We had fried salt and pepper squid, which was fried in a light batter but came with a sweet chilli dip that may well have come out of a bottle; pork ribs that I’d describe as “good for a takeaway”; two beef in sauce dishes that came with cuts of beef that were to my mind completely inappropriate for the heavy, thick sauces they were served with; and some (admittedly very big and juicy) prawns in a straightforward Thai coconut curry sauce. I have no idea why this place exists or has a reputation for good food. (Avoid. Strongly avoid.)

Dosa N’ Chutny, Tooting

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I’m working my way through all of Tooting’s well-known Indian restaurants and, although nothing beats Apollo Banana Leaf (Sri Lankan, strictly speaking), Dosa N’ Chutny is a very likely little place. It’s a reasonably straightforward affair: you order a dosa (a big, thin, crispy pancake) with a filling of curried potatoes and, in my case, mutton that comes on a tray with various different chutneys to dip it in. The coconut chutney in particular was very garlicky and fresh, a lovely addition to the dosa’s filling. The order above cost £4.50 and with a few sides was more than enough for a very greedy man like me. You’d be hard-pressed to spend more than £15/head here including drinks. It’s not the most ambient dining room but it’s a very sweet, likeable place. (One medal.)

The Ivy, Covent Garden

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I’ve been to The Ivy a few times now and, although it’s very expensive, it really is very good. Last time I went I had grouse for only the second time in my life, and it was really quite amazing. Grouse done right is moist and packed with a powerful, almost beefy flavour, and comes as standard with a piece of toast with a thick spread of pate on top, bread sauce, gravy and ‘game chips’ (which are crisps, I guess?). If, like me, you assumed that liking grouse was a way for people to show off about their class, I urge you to go to the Ivy at the right time of year to be proved wrong. Everything else I have ever had at the Ivy has been very well put together in the classical style. (Two medals.)

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