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Restaurants - page 5

Review: Brunswick House, Vauxhall

in Restaurants

Brunswick house is a very strange proposition. The building has sat there since 1758, and for four of those years it’s been a perplexing enigma on my daily commute through Vauxhall. The area around Vauxhall’s bus station is a whirl of big, hard-to-cross roads, building sites, and soulless ugly high-rise buildings and offices, and despite the intrigue of this out-of-place beauty, labelled simply ‘Restaurant’ I never made my way across.

But Brunswick House has recently acquired new management, and a flurry of positive reviews from prestigious quarters, and my home has edged closer to it each of the past three times I’ve moved—now it’s just 10 minutes walk away. So I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

We ended up spending £114 between two—so it wasn’t a cheap night—but then again we bought five cocktails and it’s always your own fault for buying cocktails. The food itself is reasonably priced; what I’d call ‘current London restaurant price’.

The beautiful menu
The beautiful menu

The menu uses all of the tricks that endear me to a place: a daily cocktail (or in its case, two), limited starters and mains that all sound like they have lots of thought put into them, only a couple of sides and ones that are a bit outside of the regular. I have to say that I am also an embarrassed fan of the ridiculous practice of omitting the pound sign and final zero in pricing. There’s something attractive about 6.2 that £6.20 doesn’t quite have.

The beautiful room
The dining room

The dining room seats about 40, I’d guess, on irregular tables and chairs, mostly with tags indicating they’re for sale. Actually nearly everything is for sale: the chandeliers, fireplaces, and lots more in the adjoining LASSCO.

Of course, none of it would work if the food itself wasn’t very good. Thankfully it all is, to varying degrees. The mullet crudo was firm chunks of raw red mullet dotted about the place—anonymous in flavour but satisfyingly firm texturally—with sharp yoghurt, fairly pointless crunchy bits of red pepper, and a strong herby air which I assume came from the sea purslane (I hadn’t heard of it either).

The squid appeared to be a salt and olive oil delivery mechanism at first, with only structural variation: rubbery squid, crunch, slippery leaves with a bit of watery bite. But in combination with the tangy sweet blood orange and pomegranate seeds the dish takes on a whole different air: more of a balance, albeit one where all of the individual ingredients’ flavours are muted.

The lamb
The lamb

The lamb was extremely tender and pink, with a subtler milder flavour than typically present when you roast lamb at home, and came with fragrant sprouting broccoli—a bit like Chinese broccoli, or a mix between regular broccoli and kale with with a herby dill-y edge, as well as soft but firm potato with acidic yoghurt. There was also a leaf, not listed on the menu, that they had deliberately burnt for a strong char flavour, if you wanted to mix it in.

The pork was slow-cooked to something a bit like a drier tinned tuna in texture, but somehow in a good way. It was very solid and meaty. The top and bottom were a perfect consistent brown for optimal Maillard savouriness. Weirdly, it came with a hefty hunk of posh taramasalata on top, whose sharp fishiness nearly overpowered everything else in the dish. I’m not quite sure about the combination, but it’s a very bold attempt.

The innes log
The innes log

I didn’t write any notes about dessert; it was good without being exceptional. The goat cheese ‘Innes Log’ was a bit cold, and lacked the warm finely-grained crumble I like—but the crackers it came with were amply seeded and as salty as you could ask for. And combining whole quince (consistency like dense soft cake) and quince jelly provides a lovely gradient of sweetness. The madeira cake was pretty good: a bit like a spicier sticky toffee pudding—not quite so sickly—and it came with a poached pear.

I’m not even slightly against the trend of restaurants having a ‘concept’. Why open a new restaurant in a city where 15,000 already exist if it doesn’t at least try and do something well? Then again, I am noticing a countervailing trend of places that just try and be good, with no frills or gimmicks. They just offer nice cocktails and interesting, well-cooked food, in a nicely fitted room at the sort of price that neither bankrupts you nor them. Brunswick House is one of those.

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

Review: The Joint, Brixton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: Avoid.

Review: Flat Iron, Covent Garden

in Restaurants

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

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

The Flat Iron steak
The Flat Iron steak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Dip & Flip, Tooting

in Restaurants

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

Hamburger with fried egg

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

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

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

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

Definitely not poutine
Definitely not poutine

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

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

A pint of milkshake
A pint of milkshake

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

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

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

Rating: 〶 – One medal.

Review: Shuang Shuang, Chinatown

in Restaurants

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

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

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

My mala broth being poured
My mala broth being poured

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Review: Noble Rot, Bloomsbury

in Restaurants

Noble Rot is an aspirational place for me, because in theory it says that I could one day be a restauranteur. Originally the folks behind Noble Rot had just a magazine—a beautiful magazine with some good features—and now they have a beautiful website, restaurant and wine bar too. Right now I have just a humble website, but perhaps one day I too could take what I’ve learned from gluttony and start selling my own food.

Then again, I’d be a bit worried in trying to follow Noble Rot, which is an impressive, stylish place. However, I have the advantage that, like the founders of Noble Rot, I know exactly what I want from a restaurant. Noble Rot is an instructive example of how to do this business correctly, even if it’s not the greatest restaurant in the world.

1. Keep the menu short and to the point

A thing of wonder
A thing of wonder

This is what menus should look like. A bunch of starters, a few mains, a few desserts. A short menu inspires confidence that they know what they’re doing. Simply listing ingredients is also reassuring, though increasingly common. For some reason I also like the fact that the vegetarian options don’t have a little ‘(v)’ after them, but I can’t exactly explain why—economy in presentation?

The combinations are mostly things I hadn’t tried before, even if I’d tasted particular ingredients—though perhaps not all as much as the halibut braised in an oxidised wine from a specific year that goes for around £300/bottle.

2. Do everything you do properly

I always have a good feeling about a restaurant when the bread is good. Perhaps it’s because it suggests they care about every element of the meal; perhaps it’s just because I love bread. Bread at Noble Rot doesn’t come free, but I’d rather pay £4 for a veritable pile of three different breads than nothing for an afterthought.

Here the offering is focaccia, sourdough and soda bread. The first is flaky and weighed down by the fact it’s utterly soaked in olive oil. Biting into out and feeling it exude oil like water out of a towel when you wring it out is joyous. The sourdough is like sourdough anywhere, chewy and light in the middle and tough and crusty on the outside. The soda bread is special: sweet like a digestive, heavy and crumbly, contrasting well with creamy butter. Five of us ate from the one plate and were satisfied.

Slipsole with smoked butter
Slipsole with smoked butter

Other starters were mostly excellent too. The burrata, pumpkin and hazelnut is just the sort of easy but effective contrast that you’d like to recreate at home if you could be bothered to cook a pumpkin—sweet, creamy and bitter. The rabbit and pork terrine was more or less what you’d expect, although my sister was put off by the giant lumps of solid fat it was studded with.

Best was the slipsole, a very delicate and small fish, whose bones you could completely avoid if you pulled it apart carefully from the centre. It had a very light flavour itself, like any other white fish minus most of the fishiness, but the dish tasted strongly of the smoked butter, which is quite unlike regular butter.

Before I’ve seen it served with bread, and then as now it tasted powerfully savoury, like it had been fermented or whipped with monosodium glutamate. But here it also tasted a bit like chorizo, from the smoking, as well as having the same orangey colour as its oil.

Even where Noble Rot fell down, it was instructive: of the mains, the duck was my least favourite. It was braised in wine, which lent it a sort of dirty, deep flavour, like beef casserole. And who doesn’t prefer their duck skin crispy? I honestly can’t see why anyone would do anything other than confit a duck leg. The quail with bacon and sprouts was better, but the waitress promised a medium rare wild bird and it was cooked through.

But the other main—the extra-special halibut—was good enough to make up for those slight mis-steps. The sauce was luxurious, creamy and sour, I suppose that was the oxidised-ness of the wine showing through. The halibut came in one thick cuboid chunk and came apart in substantial meaty flakes. It was on a bed of leek (soft and slick but mostly a flavourless vessel for the sauce) and if I’m not mistaken lemongrass. Most people don’t munch on lemongrass but after a long braising it was soft enough to just about chew through—though rather woody I enjoyed the tangy burst.

3. Keep to your theme

Make every element of the restaurant fit. It’s OK for a Chinese hotpot restaurant to have a conveyor belt, bright lighting and utilitarian service, but a fancy French restaurant needs to have exquisite attention to detail and nice wallpaper. Noble Rot does this too.

The first 10 or so metres in feels like a casual wine bar—albeit one offering some rather expensive bottles of wine, and with the special feature that you can try just 75ml of some of the wines, for an affordable sup of a special bottle. This first section is dark and atmospheric and loud with conversation.

The next section is equally dim and candle-lit but has an added old London wood panel feeling. There are wine-themed newspaper cartoons framed around the place, some of them quite amusing, and lots of stuff is a burgundy or red wine colour.

Keeping to these three rules makes Noble Rot a lovely place to go to even if you’re not seeking after one of their rare wines, and even if they make mistakes with your food (we had two main courses forgotten).

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

Review: Nanban, Brixton

in Restaurants

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

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

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

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

Ackee and saltfish fritters
Ackee and saltfish fritters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasebo burger
Sasebo burger

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

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

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

Score: 〶 – one medal.

Review: Ma’Plucker, Soho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: No medals. 

Review: The Lockhart, Marylebone

in Restaurants

It is a mark strongly in favour of The Lockhart that its menu has changed almost completely between early 2014 and now and yet looks equally beautiful across the board. Everything now, as then, is a perfectly-balanced mid-point between sophisticated modern London dining and hearty, warming southern USA staples.

Whereas then your mains options were shrimp and grits, smoked pork neck, stuffed quail, and venison saddle, plus a £70 smoked ribeye; when I went last Friday you were faced with trout farci, southern fried chicken, smoked turkey, short rib, red deer, and rabbit, as well as the shrimp and grits. Is there anything on that menu you wouldn’t like to order?

The starters were the same: all change in content and yet not in expected deliciousness. Who couldn’t want to eat pickled okra? Who couldn’t want to try coffee-cured lonza (pork fillet)? A good menu is really pleasing. I only get choice paralysis when I’m worried both might not be that good—if they both look unmissable I order both or come back.

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Snacks at The Lockhart

Snacks at The Lockhart price somewhere between £1 and £4. I’ve never had pickled prawns before, but imagine a food with the firm texture of cold prawns and the sour flavour of gherkins and you’ve basically eaten them too.

The pickled okra was also delicious, but not really in an interesting way—the pickled okra they once did at Spuntino did more to bring out the heady herby flavour of the okra, only complementing, rather than smothering, it with the vinegar. The lonza was very impressive: it didn’t taste of coffee but it did have the subtle almost liquidy texture of good ham. It tasted of salty and savoury goodness.

I wish I had a picture of the cornbread, which was a steal at five pounds: it was about two inches thick, almost as wide and long as my laptop keyboard, fresh out of the oven, slathered in hot liquid butter, and free of gimmicks like including whole pieces of sweetcorn. The edges had thin crustings where the dough had imbibed honey and gone a bit firmer. It was a dream and we wolfed it down.

Wedge salad
Quintessentially American food

Wedge salad is such a winning, American food. I didn’t actually try this dish, my dad ordered it. But he loved it, and it looked so good, so I felt I had to include a picture.

The smoked fish oat dish tasted mostly of citrus
The smoked fish oat dish tasted mostly of citrus

I was less impressed with the smoked fish / oat / meyer lemon dish. I like smoked fish dishes to be an overpowering gust of salt, whereas this mainly tasted of fresh citrus. It was a bit like the old joke ‘do you want any sausages with your ketchup?’—I think the meyer lemon (apparently a cross between a mandarin and a normal lemon, explaining its sweetness) had too much influence on the dish.

The joy of properly-cooked red meat never wears off
The joy of properly-cooked red meat never wears off

I shared half of rabbit & dumplings, which was essentially a casserole—I didn’t know that dumplings were an American dish but I guess Americ is just an amalgam of all different people from across Europe and the world so why not. The rabbit was tender and lean; the dumplings were soft, and chewily bound together.

I also had half of the smoked red deer and boy was it cooked properly: black on the outside but only going about a millimetre deep; no grey and light pink gradient towards the deep dark medium rare centre.

The mains I just had bites of were excellent too. The southern fried chicken was dry and crispy yet juicy inside & came with an interesting soup of collard greens and a clear broth. The smoked short rib was as dark and ultra-tender as you could hope for.

Dessert
Dessert

Dessert also walked the tightrope between Southern US comfort food and restaurant food in England today. The pumpkin pie was great, but no better than the pie I ate at thanksgiving. I didn’t try the chocolate chess pie or lemon icebox pie but they were received very well. The bourbon Canelé—the doughnuts in the bottom right—didn’t taste so much like bourbon as like deep-fried dough and sugar, but not for the worse, that’s pretty much what you’re looking for. After a big meal I couldn’t manage more than half of one.

The Lockhart is a lovely restaurant. Its interiors feel a bit empty and spare, like a trial run to the beautiful room that its sister Shotgun has in Soho. Its music is an amusing mix of 2004-2008 indie rock and pop rock hits (Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight, The Kinks, and the Kaiser Chiefs all got a look-in while I was there). But it serves really lovely food, the kind of food that makes you feel happy and warm—and full.

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

 

Review: Queen’s, Camberwell

in Restaurants

Camberwell is having something of a moment, perhaps even more so than all of the other ‘up-and-coming’ South and East London hotspots. In the last year or so it’s gained the fantastic Camberwell Arms, Theo’s Pizza, which gives Franco Manca and Pizza Pilgrims a solid challenge, and now Queen’s (which replaces a nail bar by the same name).

This comes on top of the peerless Silk Road, the popular FM Mangal, and Angels & Gypsies, a pretty decent tapas place. And all of these lie on one short stretch of road between the green and where the town fades imperceptibly into the road to Peckham.

I am proud to say that I can personally claim some of the responsbility for Queen’s coming into being, because I crowd-funded it—to the tune of £100—on Kickstarter. I liked the vision and apparently 306 others did too, because it garnered £50,024 and many of us were there over the past weekend to enjoy an opening ‘feast’ with paired drinks, something Mike (half of co-founders Mike and Ollie) told me they intend to continue doing monthly. Otherwise, the menu will be focused on what they can do with their charcoal grill, a machine you can take a gander at in their open kitchen.

What is immediately obvious about the new Queen’s is that it is not a South London nail bar. It is almost like a big indoor climbing frame, the sort you might find at one of those farms you visit with your family on holiday in Dorset. This isn’t a bad thing: I think that the turn toward elegant simplicity in lots of the new wave of restaurants is something to be welcomed. The ceilings felt high and the tiling by the fireplace was very pretty (although the air coming in through the chimney was freezing).

As with so many other places I’ve been to recently, you dine fairly communally at Queen’s, on big wooden rectangular blocks of tables (unless you’re in the very cool four-man booth, which is cut away under the upstairs storage bit of the climbing frame, a little bit like the lower bunk of a bunk bed). Since all of the 30-odd covers were eating the same thing, we were also all served together on big dishes. I find this communal eating a bit wearing, but it’s probably also a factor in the reasonableness of the pricing, given the quality of what you’re getting.

As I said, I paid £100, and got dinner for two, with a drink for each of the four savoury courses. I think this is extremely reasonable, although I cannot promise this pricing will extend to future feasts.

The first course was a heavily-spiced, springy and chewy flatbread with a little broth of bacon, pearl barley, a thick grass-like vegetable whose name I’ve forgotten, and two mussels in their shells. The broth was savoury, the pearl barley had a satisfying sugar puff-like bite, and the mussels were cooked perfectly—they disintegrated into soft subsections with the lightest touch. It was served with a sloe gin cocktail that tasted like a soft drink.

Flatbread and soup
Flatbread and soup

Course two was raw cured sea bass (or possibly bream—who can tell) with charred fennel and some pomegranate seeds. The pomegranate seeds didn’t affect the dish much, but the fennel took on a mild cleansing flavour with the grilling, and I can never get enough of the delicate texture and flavour of raw sea bass. The accompanying drink was a shot of aquavit, the nordic spirit that tastes largely of pure alcohol, with a hint of aniseed.

Raw cured seabass
All about that bass

Sophie liked the third course best: ‘Turkish ravioli’ or Manti with cow’s cheese, beetroot sauce, and yoghurt. The slight firmness of the bottom of the pasta (was it pasta?) was great, but the best fun was mopping up the mix of sharp yoghurt with sweet beetroot sauce left behind. We got white wine (muscadet) as accompaniment.

Beetroot ravioli
Beetroot ravioli

To fill us up they brought a fourth course which was basically roast lamb. Well, sort of: the lamb was clearly slow-cooked for hours, to a point of extreme, almost sloppy tenderness; the mash was the almost-liquid creamy stuff I’ve never been served at my or anyone else’s house but like to have when I am out; and the veg was caramelised. It was very warming, homely and delicious nonetheless. It came with a glass of clean-tasting red wine.

Filling hunks of slow-cooked lamb
Filling hunks of slow-cooked lamb

Finally we had the lemon tart, which was a pretty impressive specimen: wobbly, how-does-it-stay-together topping, super thin pastry coating, blowtorched crust at the top, candied lemon peel, and sumac spice for contrast. Really excellent, especially after the travesty of a tart we ate at the otherwise recommended Casse-Croûte in Bermondsey.

A proper lemon tart
A proper lemon tart

Queen’s is an exciting new venture in Camberwell—absolutely everything they tried came off. I look forward to checking out their regular menu, and I hope Mike and Ollie’s joint is as popular as it deserves to be.

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

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