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Review: Breddos, Clerkenwell

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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

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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

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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.)

Where I’ve been eating this summer

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I have been out quite a lot in the last few months, but I haven’t written about any of the stuff I’ve eaten. I’ll never get time to review everywhere I’ve eaten in full, but here are some short thoughts and recommendations about all of the spots I’ve visited. I haven’t written anything about it, but of course I’ve been to Good Friend chicken around five times in the last few months, and it remains the best friend chicken you can get.

Macellaio, Southwark

Sam has reviewed Macellaio for SUL (we both went separately during their soft launch), and I mostly agree with what he said. It’s an interesting idea, and the “pissa”—Ligurian pizza but with thicker, fluffier bread, and a tangy yoghurty cheese instead of mozzarella—were pretty good. But they clearly lack a hot enough grill to get a proper char on the outside of otherwise fairly good meat. I got half off because it was a soft launch, and I can’t imagine myself going back at full price. (No Medals)

Olympic Cafe, Waterloo

By contrast, I expect to go back to Olympic Cafe fairly regularly. It’s a barebones, utilitarian, spartan-as-can-be little room with bland decor and tables, and an extremely aggressive waiter/maitre-d lady. It offers only a list of the most generic Chinese foods. And yet, for the price, its quality is extremely impressive: I had a sizeable plate of roast crackling pork with amazingly crispy skin and juicy meat, for just £5! I don’t know whether everything they sell is so impressive, but I want to find out. (One Medal)

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Shackfuyu, Soho

Shackfuyu is a side-project of hipster-ish ramen restaurant Bone Daddies, and it’s been open about two years, seemingly always busy and successful. Their menu is short and to the point, and many dishes had run out by the time we ate, which I always take as a positive. Only about half of the dishes worked, but when they came off they really came off—and the failures were still worthwhile tries. (Verging on One Medal)

The Diner, Covent Garden

I was invited to try “hard tea” cocktails at The Diner. They were okay, but they were too sweet, and didn’t taste sufficiently of tea. Their regular schtick is American-style junk food and it was competent if unexceptional: bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, crispy-fluffy sweet potato fries, etc. There are too many places that do this exceptionally to actually go, but nothing I ate made me hate it, as I might have predicted. (No Medals)

Shotgun, Soho

So Shotgun was one of my favourite London restaurants, and maybe still is, but, as Sam sums up very accurately here, their Chicken Dinner menu is absolutely diabolical. If they keep focusing on the BBQ—which they do as well as anywhere, if not better—then they remain a two medal restaurant. When it comes to anything else, they risk being an avoid.

Legs, Hackney

Of all the restaurants I went to, this is the one I wanted to review individually the most. Legs fulfils all of my arbitrary restaurant preferences: short menu, focuses on what it’s good at, few seats, strong flavours, interesting ideas, knows how to cook pork belly properly. I’d wanted to go since I heard about them, but when am I ever in Hackney Central? Don’t miss the pork belly, which they slowly poach, cool, store, then pan fry until the outside is crisp, and serve with sunflower seeds and plum ketchup. Also don’t miss the grilled watermelon with sumac—what a combination! It’s also the right price: there’s no need to spend more than £30 or so a head if you don’t want to. (One Medal)

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Chick n Sours, Covent Garden

The first Chick n Sours, in Haggerston, won plaudits from basically everyone, and many of my friends are hardcore aficionados, regularly making the trip across to eat its fried chicken. So I was pretty excited. But I didn’t really “get it” when I went, perhaps due to dish choice, perhaps due to having bad taste, perhaps just because I chose the wrong dips. I’m going to go back before making a final judgement (it’s not expensive, and I did love the zingy pickled watermelon), but on what I had first time I’d call it no medals. The staff were great though.

The Canonbury Tavern, Highbury

The Canonbury is now one of the two closest pubs to where I live, so I went in to check it out on the very day I moved in. It’s a treasure. I feel so lucky to live in a London where there are 20-30 pubs serving food this great: perfect sticky reduced stock jus; attractively presented king oyster mushrooms; beautiful old England pub glamour surroundings; steaks cooked just how you ask for them; expert use of different bits of game in the way they should be. And good bread. Mains are £15-20, starters and desserts about £6—just what you want. (One Medal)

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The Palomar, Soho

So The Palomar served me probably the best bread dish I’ve eaten this year: Yemeni layered croissant-like bread that was simultaneously fluffy and light but also extremely dense and heavy. I can’t say how that even works, but it does, and I equally did not expect that tahini and a gazpacho-like tomato sauce would be so good to dip in. But they also served me by far the worst pork belly dish I’ve ever eaten, a horrifying mistake of a dish: rubbery, impossible to cut, chewy, and with a bewildering selection of sides whose purposes were completely unclear. God it was terrible. And the rest of the dishes were on a range between those: some totally underwhelming, some satisfying and strongly flavoured (like the deconstructed kebab). I was shocked at the unreliability, given the wide swathe of 10/10 reviews. (No Medals)

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MeatLiquor N1, Islington

Of course, I’ve been to every other Meat-X restaurant, although the MeatWagon that started it all was before my time. They continue to be among the best adverts for London’s burger “scene”, although this time I had a lovely Philly cheesesteak, totally different from the more authentic-seeming one at Liberty Cheesesteaks in Spitalfields Market and good in a totally different way. Dense, moist, juicy, fatty, cheesy meat—if it’s on the specials menu don’t miss out. (One Medal, like their other spots.)

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Kingston

I’ve been to GBK in Kingston quite a few times, and it’s definitely not great when you compare it to the options you have in London nowadays (Shake Shack, Bleecker St Burger, Dip & Flip). Most people probably like it less than Byron and Five Guys—both of which have a branch in Kingston. But you know, I think it’s totally tolerable, and I don’t mind going whenever my younger brother (who loves the place) wants to. If he’s paying… But I won’t give it a rating because I know Sam & Philip would give it an avoid.

Gaucho Grill, Piccadilly

When I was younger, Gaucho was a Thing. More than Hawksmoor or Goodman, it was the steak restaurant I’d heard of as a child. We went to the Richmond one for my 16th birthday and it was the first time I’d ever eaten food that expensive. Something like £40 for the large fillet. I loved it then, but each time I’ve been back since, I’ve found it less impressive. The last time, before this recent visit, was the last day before two years of vegetarianism, which is sort of like it being my last straight partner before I realised I was gay.

This time, we went for a special £75 menu (but were invited) that was being sold to people around the world to celebrate their birthday. It was called “Divine Bovine” and, honestly, it was garbage, especially for the price. There was one good dish, a slow cooked, tender in the middle, crispy on the outside, bit of beef rib accompanied by hoi sin. The rest was a waste of time, especially the diabolical, undrinkable beef martini, which tasted of beef stock with white spirit. Don’t put on a big meal if your kitchen can’t handle it. The normal restaurant is okay, but I’d honestly rather go to Flat Iron and have two or three of their specials. Gaucho is a big waste of money. (Avoid)

Review: Shotgun, Soho

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Shotgun was one of the first places we ever reviewed here. Ben loved its take on US-style barbecue food: pig’s ears, beef brisket, and kid goat that made me very jealous to read about. Since then, it has been trying out specialised menus, two of which I’ll review here: an all you can eat weekend lunch, and a fried chicken dinner menu.

My first trip to Shotgun was for the all you can eat. Like presumably most people reading, I have a special place in my heart for the words “all you can eat”. There is nothing quite as crushing as the feeling of still being a little hungry after a meal out, and the proliferation of tapas-style restaurants in London has made this threat a clear and present danger. (It doesn’t help that I often share meals with people with relatively small appetites who don’t really get my anxiety about this.)

But I’m also well aware that “all you can eat” is a byword for shit. Brazilian “steak” houses, Chinese buffets, fajitas done Old El Paso style, that sort of thing. I still enjoy them for making me gut-bustingly full but I’m not proud of myself about it. For Shotgun to do an all you can eat menu, surely, was some kind of terrible fall from grace?

Ribs, burnt ends, pork neck, pork belly

Happily, surprisingly, no. Without retreading over old ground, the brisket burnt ends were beautifully crisp and bursting with a rich, flavoursome juice; the slow-cooked piglet was the best-tasting pulled pork I’ve had since my trip to Auburn, Alabama; the pork belly was balanced nicely between sweet-tasting meat and layers of fat; and the sides (things like barbecue beans and pureed potatoes) were generous, if anything too much so (I kid, there’s no such thing as too big a portion). The cornbread in particularly was the best I’ve ever had, covered with golden syrup to give it a gorgeous sweet crust.

Cornbread
Cornbread

On top of all this, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (which is quite nice, whatever Americans say) and glasses of prosecco were on sale for £2 each. The only “problem” with all this was that the first plate of food was so darn filling that I could barely finish a second. A very good problem to have, and even if £25/head is a bit steep for a normal lunch, for this I thought I was getting a good deal.

Our sides
Our sides

I cannot begin to understand what happened between that trip in September and my most recent visit, exactly a month later. This was to try Shotgun’s new “fried chicken dinner” menu, apparently introduced after the closure of The Lockhart, another restaurant from the same people with a slightly broader take on American cuisine. What could be more exciting – a proper competitor to Chick’n Sours, whose new Covent Garden branch (along with the unbeatable Good Friend Chicken) really might herald the penetration of excellent fried chicken into central London. (Disclosure: Shotgun invited me to review this meal; it did not invite me to review the earlier one.)

Pimento cheese
Pimento cheese

Things started with the same menu items as the weekend lunch. Devilled eggs were bland, but the pimento cheese was quite difficult to resist. It’s basically cheddar cheese mashed up with mayonnaise and bits of pimento pepper to a soft, spreadable spread served with little salted TUC biscuits. It won’t set the world on fire but it’s enjoyably trashy.

Dirty rice
Dirty rice

After that was the ‘dirty rice’, a bowl of rice made with ground chicken liver, chunks of andouille sausage, slices of spring onion and (allegedly) bits of crab meat, which I couldn’t detect but one of my fellow diners could. Apparently it was a soul food dish based on food given to slaves that used up leftovers and scraps.

It was a strangely offally dish to serve on a communal set menu: I quite like the taste of chicken liver, but at least a large minority of people don’t. I enjoyed the dish well enough, but it wasn’t anything special. It was strange to serve this as a course in its own right, along with the cornbread, but perhaps that’s the custom in America.

Then things started to go badly wrong. The fried chicken bits certainly looked good: they were big and golden and crispy, and came piled high in two bowls. But they tasted of, well, nothing. The batter had seemingly no seasoning or flavouring at all, tasting more like fish and chip batter than fried chicken coating. It was, in the end, far too crispy and over-battered. But just flavourless, boring, bland, pointless. The chicken was served with the Shotgun house barbecue sauces, which go well with beef and pork but were completely inappropriate for fried chicken (which, if it needs a sauce, needs gravy) at the best of times, and just did not work at all with these flavourless chunks in front of me.

The “mac and cheese” was even worse. Christ, the mac and cheese. The photo above might not capture the grim disappointment of this dish well enough, but what came out to us was small conchiglie pasta shells in a sort of orange sauce that may have turned into cheese if we’d left it long enough, but certainly didn’t seem to have ever been near the stuff before then. Shot through that sauce was at least a cupful of breadcrumbs, as if the thing that can rescue pasta-in-flavourless-orange-sauce is a great big fistful of bread. A dish made with Sainsbury’s Oven Baked Macaroni Cheese Sauce would have been better than this monstrosity.

The sides of a salad, potato puree and coleslaw were fine. But there’s another thing that bothered me: all the portions were really quite small. For a set menu like this, you hope that the standardisation means they’ll be able to give you a lot of food, but our rice and mac and cheese bowls were half as large as I’d have expected for the number of people we had, and two pieces of fried chicken each plus what are really just a lot of side dishes is terrible value for £20/head, even if the food had been half decent.

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I fear Shotgun is falling on hard times. It has a pricey-looking location just off Regent Street and upscale barbecue might not be the cash cow that it needs to be. It was busy on the Saturday afternoon we went, but almost deserted throughout the Monday evening. I felt quite sad looking seeing the handful of other diners eating their mac and cheese as I left. Maybe that explains the experimentation with different menus.

But if anyone from Shotgun is reading this: please, please consider scrapping the fried chicken menu. It was one of the worst, most disappointing meals I have had in a restaurant that I can remember having. If someone came here on the basis of one of our reviews I’d be embarrassed and suspect they would never listen to us again. I dearly hope Shotgun gets its act together soon, because doing barbecue it deserves to thrive. Doing the stuff of this fried chicken menu, it deserves to die.

Rating: Avoid, if it’s the fried chicken. If meat’s back on the menu, I think Ben’s two medals still apply, and that £25 weekend lunch is great fun.

Review: Macellaio, Southwark

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Before I begin, I should point out that I ate at Macellaio’s new Southwark branch (it has two already – one in Clerkenwell and one in South Kensington) during its ‘soft launch’ period, during which food was 50% off and some of the kinks are still being ironed out. I’m a little uncomfortable giving a bad review to anywhere during a soft launch, because I feel like part of the deal is to put up with the problems in exchange for a cheap meal.

At the centre of the dining room were two long benches with a space in the middle for staff to walk up and down to serve diners, inexplicably raised up on a platform so high that they had to stoop down to put the plates down or hear what we were saying. I didn’t manage to take an illicit photo of one of the staff up there without it feeling invasive, so you’ll have to take my word for it. At the top of the room was a butchery station where a man wearing a trilby hat chopped steaks off one of the beef ribcages that hung beside him.

The (very large) wine list was, to me at least, unhelpfully expensive. I settled on the cheapest thing I could find, which was a £23 carafe of chianti and tasted fine, but I noticed that most of my fellow soft launch frugalists were on beer (£4.50/bottle).

Our first starter was a battuta (£5.50 before the discount), an Italian steak tartare without the strong accompaniments that steak tartare usually has like pickles and Worcestershire sauce. It was a real treat – the beef was fresh and tender and well-dressed with a good olive oil, making for a more subtle flavouring than steak tartare usually gives.

Our other two starters were more disappointing. Beef tongue (usually £5) was strong and shot through with a rich vein of fat, but the splodges of salsa verde it came with were utterly flavourless. Anchovies with butter and bread (£6) were nice enough, but literally just that – half a dozen little anchovies with a knob of creamy butter and two thin slices of bread (that tasted a little stale). I enjoyed eating a very buttery piece of bread with anchovies on top, but I don’t need to go to Macellaio and spend £6 for that privilege.

Bread, anchovies and butter served on a rock

There is only one meat option at Macellaio – the six-week aged beef ribs hanging in a fridge at the top of the dining room (£5.40/100g). They show you your cut after it’s been butchered so I presume it’s good quality meat, and certainly it looked red and healthy to me. After it’s been cooked it’s brought to your table (well, bench) with a bit too much fanfare as the waiters do a countdown and unveil the beef from under its serving platter lid.

Unfortunately the steak was not seared enough on the outside, presumably because the grill was not hot enough, and so was mostly grey and the fat not crispy enough. It was still a tender and pleasingly light-tasting bit of meat, and did have some crispy outside bits that were very enjoyable, but it felt like a bit of a waste. Unfortunately the chips that came with it were very bad, greasy with oil and again not cooked hot enough to be crunchy on the outside.

Having said that, the beef was surprisingly inexpensive in relative terms – Hawksmoor’s prime rib is £8.25/100g and compared to that (admittedly better-cooked) this did feel like it could be a decent deal. But if you’re serving a big piece of beef, and making it the centrepiece of your restaurant, you should get it right.

According to Ben the pissas – apparently the way Ligurians spell pizza – were better; crispily soaked in olive oil at the bottom, light and fluffy at the top, and topped with soft little lumps of tangy, yoghurty stracchino cheese (not mozzarella). They were also cheap at £6 each.

One other thing really annoyed me that I feel I should mention. Quite a few times the staff put their hands on my shoulder (eg when I was ordering), including at one point when the manager and I had had a misunderstanding about when we’d be sitting that I think he took a little personally. Maybe that’s fun in Italy, but it’s not fun for me.

Self-consciously upmarket, Macellaio felt a little bit like a Strada or ASK for people on City salaries. And it’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself or any of the food, or that with some improvement it could be quite a lot better. But at £71 for two under the discount, which would have been closer to £100 without, I just can’t really understand why, at those prices, I would want to go back.

Rating: No medals.

Review: Kerb, Camden

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Even though I love street food, by which I mean stalls or vans that sell a very limited range of things for £5-10 apiece, it’s difficult to review. My favourite place for lunch in the world is Santana Grill, at Strutton Ground market near my office, which does some of the best burritos and tacos I’ve ever had, including in Mexico. But who wants to read a long review of a place you can’t really justify a trip to and you can’t actually eat at? That’s what the Straight Up London Food Map is for.

But the growth of permanent street food areas, where you can go all day any day, means a semi-review is justifiable. A fortnight ago I visited Dalston’s Street Feast for a Bleecker Street burger (yes, it is the best burger in London), and this week I visited the new Kerb in Camden. It’s a fairly tightly packed courtyard next to Camden Lock market, quite pretty and far away enough from the throng of the main street that you can move around easily enough. I first went as a guest of Kerb, and then went back on my own dollar a few days later. Here’s a brief review of some of the things I tried.

Mother Clucker

These breast strips are about 3"x1" in size

This place does three or four large chicken breast strips for £6, coated in batter and deep fried. The chicken is astonishingly moist – better by far than the strips at the otherwise-mighty Chick’n Sours – and the batter very crispy. I’m very impressed with the chicken here, which apparently is ‘tea brined’ and (probably because I’m a suggestable eejit) really did have a very enjoyable whiff of black tea. The massive difference between getting three and four strips is slightly annoying – four for £6 is a steal, three is decent value. Either way, this is tremendous fried chicken.

The Patate

I’d never tried a ‘beef bourguignon burger’ before and since the others online look absolutely nothing like The Patate’s (thank god) I’m pretty sure they can claim it as their invention. Basically, it’s quite dry beef bourguignon fried on a griddle with gravy poured over and eventually a slice of cheese (Raclette de Savoie, blue Fourme d’Ambert or cheddar) melted on the griddle and then placed on top. It’s quite a fun thing to eat because it feels unique, but I can’t say that I’d have it again – though it’s enjoyable the flavours are too bland for me, and ultimately it feels a little bit lacking.

Other Side

Other Side’s chicken breast was extremely crispily fried, decently moist (it’s stupid to compare something this size to Mother Clucker’s strips – you simply can’t get the same level of moistness because you have to cook it for longer), and dressed with some excellent homemade pickles and a generous slab of bacon.

But it also needed, I thought, more saucing. The smoked honey butter they brushed it with sounded amazing but I couldn’t really taste it, and I thought that even the buffalo burger that my friend had, with buffalo sauce squirted on from a bottle, seemed dry. They should try dunking the chicken in buffalo sauce and make the honey flavouring more pronounced because right now all the breading (on the bun and the chicken) just overwhelms the other flavours.

Oli Baba’s

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Halloumi fries are a very enjoyable idea, because even though you can buy a block of halloumi in Tesco Express for £1.79 it still feels like a bit of a treat. These are chip-sized bits deep fried to a golden semi-crisp, with a spongey inside and served with yoghurt, pomegranate molasses and seeds and mint leaves. It’s quite delicious – the yoghurt cuts through the saltiness of the halloumi and the pomegranate sweetness adds a nice extra dimension – but not really sustainable for a whole meal. Everyone I saw was getting a portion of fries between two, and one was enough for the two of us as a chaser to our Mother Clucker servings.

Overall

I also tried steak and chips from Steakhaus, but forgot to take a photo – it was OK, a decently seasoned bit of (I think) bavette steak, but nothing special. I’m not sure it makes sense to give a street food venue a rating, but there are enough places that looked nice that I’ll probably be back to try them. I don’t like Camden, but Kerb does make it quite a bit less terrible.

Review: Bao, Fitzrovia

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Bao’s Soho branch was the first place I reviewed for Straight Up London and, unlike everyone else, I didn’t think too much of it. The queue was ludicrously long and the food just wasn’t that interesting.

Still, my girlfriend liked it and now that Bao has opened a second branch in Fitzrovia she wanted to go. The room is bigger and airier, with diner seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar looking out onto a quiet side-street. It’s very pleasant, and makes me feel as if I’m in Japan (though Bao is Taiwanese).

Bao’s menu is divided into three stages. Xiao chi (small eats) come first, then the bao, then the chi shiang rice bowls to fill you up at the end. You can also buy a £27 “limited edition” t-shirt if you like wasting money.

Preserved cabbage, corn with beef butter and prawn heads

Sweetcorn with “beef butter” was surprisingly delicious. The beef butter made the corn taste rich, savoury and meaty, and I gobbled it down. The prawn heads had been deep-fried to a crisp, and each bite was a burst of oily, fishy goodness. At £2 they felt like excellent value and I was tempted to order a second bowl.

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets were similar in principle to the Soho Bao’s pig trotter nuggets, but inside had big, half-melting chunks of tendon, which tastes halfway between fat and a very thick jelly with a meaty taste. The beef cheek would have been a little overpoweringly beefy if not for the acidity of the green chilli sauce they came with, which was literally finger-lickin’ good.

Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce
Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce

Our final small plate was duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce, which came sliced in half with a warm onion marmalade, spring onions and coriander on top. They were unbelievably tender and each one pretty much melted in your mouth as you ate them. The balance of the sweet marmalade and garlic sauce against the fresh sharpness of the onions and coriander was perfect. This was truly one of the nicest meat dishes I have had, up there with Silk Road’s barbecued lamb skewers for sheer pleasure.

Pork confit bao
Pork confit bao

Then came the bao, which after all this I was excited for. But, alas, they were basically the same as last time. Not bad, exactly, but just very boring. My pork confit bao’s fried onions went nicely with the sweet hot sauce and sliced of pork belly, but ultimately it all ended up tasting a bit too sweet and cloying. The buns themselves were fluffy and pillowy, but weren’t that special.

Classic bao
Classic bao

The ‘classic’ bao was better with a nice little heap of ground peanuts on top of warm preserved vegetables and bits of braised pork, but still didn’t really do much in the way of flavour. No doubt bao are a subtle dish that is lost on me, but I really don’t see the attraction, especially for £4-4.50 each. The lamb bao (not pictured) was much better, because the meat actually had a distinct flavour, and came with a fresh minty sauce.

Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl
Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl

We shared a rice bowl to finish, which was probably a mistake – it’s too awkward to share really. It was comfort food, with some small but thick slices of beef shortrib, an egg yolk and some beef ‘tea’ to pour over. Again, not very excitingly flavoured but the beef tea and egg stuck to fat grains of sushi rice and made it quite a nice way to end the meal. I wouldn’t mind a cheaper version with just the beef tea and the egg, though – the point is to fill up, and the other parts of the dish were unnecessary.

All told the bill came to £28 per head, which was not exactly cheap but didn’t feel like a rip-off given the variety of what we had, and the quality of some of it. Drinks are priced fairly extortionately, though – £4.50 is an absurd price for half a pint of Kernel table beer, as is £8 (!) for a 600ml bottle of Taiwan beer (I had a £4.50 stubbie can instead).

Overall my impression of Bao has changed a little. The bao themselves are still too bland and unremarkable to bother with, but the side plates are something else altogether. Bone Daddies opened Shakfuyu as a branch to sell its side plates on their own, which is certainly something Bao’s owners should consider. If I ever go back, I’ll stick with the prawn heads and duck hearts. Basically, Bao is great – if you skip the bao.

Rating: One medal (Two for the side plates, none for the bao).

Review: Good Friend Chicken, Chinatown (née Bigbe Chicken)

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(Update, 25th August: Bigbe Chicken is now Good Friend Chicken, and has moved a couple of doors down. When I last went, it was much the same with an expanded menu and slightly higher prices of around 30p or so per item. The old favourites were still superb, but the squid, which I hadn’t tried before, was terrible. Other new items, like chicken necks, were OK but slightly awkward to eat. “Good Friend” is still great, but unless you’re feeling adventurous stick to the popcorn chicken and chicken breast.)

Bigbe Chicken is a small Taiwanese fried chicken shop in Chinatown that opened about three weeks ago. I heard about it from Lizzie’s Hollow Legs blog and visited it late one night after attending a film premiere around the corner.

Its menu is small and straightforward: three different kinds of chicken, deep fried squid, and some sweet potato fries. I went for the deep fried breast and a batch of popcorn chicken.

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The first thing you need to know is that the portions are enormous. I didn’t think the chicken breast’s £5.50 price was too bad to begin with, but once I saw that they were the size of a football hammered about half an inch thick I realised that I was on to a true bargain. Popcorn chicken was appreciably different, with a much greater batter to chicken ratio and fried for longer for a crispier shell.

All are topped with your choice of flavoured powders – I had ‘special pepper’ (Sichuan, I think) and chilli powder on my chicken breast and Thai seasoning on my popcorn. The pepper and chilli, recommended by our very chatty and friendly server Laura, was sweet and spicy, and soaked into the batter nicely. The Thai was maybe slightly underpowered for the popcorn chicken, whose batter was so thick it probably needed something punchier, but it was hardly a problem.

The chicken itself was magnificent. It was hot, crispy, salty, juicy and meaty, and the sheer pleasure of holding a giant piece of searingly hot chicken in your hands while you nibble off bits as it cools in your hands is hard to overstate. I can’t work out how it managed to stay so hot throughout me eating it but I’m happy to say that I didn’t burn my mouth.

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Popcorn chicken was perhaps even better. The thumb-sized pieces were fried to a perfect crunch and had, I think, a slightly more peppery batter than the breasts. The portion was about two fistfuls which, for £2.99, might be the best value for money food you can get anywhere in central London. The sweet potato fries I tried were also fried to a crisp, though in general I don’t really like sweet potato.

My friend had the drumstick, which was actually quite a big full leg with thigh attached, and looked like it had been cooked long or hot enough for the grease inside (a personal bugbear of mine) to melt away. I’m going back this weekend to try some off-menu things like chicken skin and parson’s nose, which I asked the owner about after reading about them in Lizzie’s review.

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I predict that quite soon Bigbe chicken will become so popular that you’ll have to queue around the block to get some. It deserves it. They have done something simple but new, and done it rather brilliantly at an unbelievably good price. My suggestion: get there before everyone else does.

Score: Two medals.

Review: St. Lukes Kitchen, Covent Garden

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Library, or Lib-rary, as its website URL has it, is a private members club on St. Martin’s Lane right by Trafalgar Square and the Chandos pub. St. Luke’s Kitchen, its restaurant, has just opened up to the public, and as well as normal service, has a bunch of kitchen takeovers and guest chefs lined up over coming months. I went to the regular restaurant and was pretty impressed.

Quail "three ways"
Quail “three ways”

It offers an unfussy menu of regular restaurant offerings done well. Yes, you’ve eaten quail, but it’s still a delight when the skin is properly done to a crisp yet the flesh is still juicy, tender and slightly pink. Yes, you’ve eaten seared tuna—maybe you’ve even seared it yourself—but is it always four tender and mild melt-in-the-mouth tender chunks paired with just the right amount of fiery wasabi?

Seared tuna loin, pickled mooli, cucumber and radish
Seared tuna loin, pickled mooli, cucumber and radish

St. Luke’s Kitchen doesn’t offer any foods you’ve never heard of, and its only gimmick is that there was a book left at every place with the menu in it like a bookmark. It’s a dark semi-underground room with forty seats, excellent service, and beautifully-presented food that is simply very good.

Pan fried sea bass, chard, speck and lentil dressing
Pan fried sea bass, chard, speck and lentil dressing

The menu is short and to-the-point: four starter options (£6.50 to £8.50); five mains (£14.50 to £23.50); four sides (£4.50); and four desserts including cheese.

Little spears of bread with butter, olive oil and balsamic
Little spears of bread with butter, olive oil and balsamic

Perhaps the nicest touch was, surprisingly the bread, which came in javelin-form, with both a pat of unsalted butter and olive oil-submerged balsamic. Of course, I covered my own spear in all three, plus liberally applied salt. Why would anyone want unsalted butter?

Another highlight was the salted caramel ice cream with popcorn. It’s not exactly a new idea but somehow the soft, ultra-dry texture of the popcorn meshes perfectly with the sweet frigid cream, and crumbs, surprisingly, are almost always a good addition to desserts. This time they were honeycomb.

Popcorn ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb
Popcorn ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb

We got a side salad, which was as pointless as side salads always are. Not sure how people get away with charging nearly a fiver for about 10 calories of floppy-textured leaves. The second dessert, little cake-like slices of chocolate brownie, was also less impressive: not bad, but essentially the same as something you’d get from Pret or M&S, albeit fresher. Or maybe I just don’t have a taste for chocolate brownies.

St. Luke’s Kitchen is a nice place; the private club atmosphere adds to the experience; and the ambiance is very private and intimate. What’s more they serve no frills takes on the sorts of dishes you see on lots of restaurant menus, impressive in their consistency and quality. I can’t speak for the quality of the future guest chefs, but the standard of the regular fare makes St Luke’s worth keeping in mind.

Score: One medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

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