Chiltern Firehouse – Chiltern Street

Posted on April 11, 2015

A year after opening Chiltern Firehouse is still on everyone’s bucket list. It’s still the place to be seen, and it’s still just as difficult to get a table.

André Balazs’ properties tend to have this in common. He’s found the formula for generating the hottest places in town, attracting the well-heeled and far-famed like moths to a flame, and has watched his empire grow with rip-roaring success. Chiltern Firehouse is no different. It’s been ablaze ever since the hotelier turned his attention to London and transformed Marylebone’s beautiful old fire station into the most happening spot in West London.

It’s created such a buzz that the building’s gates seem permanently besieged by the paparazzi. As such it’s never out of focus for too long. Its popularity amongst the great and the good means that unless you’re Joan Collins celebrating her recent damehood (she was hosting American pals on the big table next to us), you’re unlikely to get a booking unless you beg on your hands and knees weeks in advance.

But once inside, you’d be forgiven for slipping into celebrity mode yourself. You’re hosed down with equal quantities of charm and bubbly; plied with cordiality until you’re enquiring into a room for the night – there’s none for you, fool.

The food ceases to matter because your rubbing shoulders with an A-lister has you unduly excited. You just have to let people know you’re there. A shameless selfie in the toilet mirror defaced with the trifling phrases ‘Cigarettes and Men’ and ‘Wine and Women’ becomes the priority. If your feeling less egocentric, a snap of the table’s kissing dog’s – their distinctive salt and pepper pots are canoodling canines – offers a more cryptic, but no less deliberate clue to one’s whereabouts when plastered on Instagram.

So what comes out of the kitchen? Other than little crab doughnuts, which have made a name for themselves on social media as that kind of pretty, girlie, finger-friendly snack that lends itself nicely to hashtags, does anyone really know? We’re all familiar with who stumbles out of the exclusive Laddershed club on a Friday night, but Nuno Mendes’ food dished up some brilliant surprises.

To go with the doughnuts, venison rolls kissed with a smoky ketchup and cornbread fingers poked in sweet chipotle butter delivered comfort by the barrel-load. Likewise, other starters were totally familiar but rehabilitated into something better than expected. Steak tartare came with with a myriad of finely diced trimmings and an egg yolk, waiting to be mixed Japanese-style with two wooden paddles. It’s crisp breads and fiery hot sauce added texture and punch. A good Cesar salad finished, a near perfect spread.

Chargrilled Iberico pork was enthusiastically received and gilt head bream with romanesco was extraordinary considering it promised very little in writing. A slightly underwhelming bowl of lobster noodles was the only dish that didn’t wow – the plated mains were much more appealing – but it was perfectly fine with plenty of chilli heat.

Abundantly sweet desserts of milk and honey and key lime pie were just two of several reinvented staples on the pudding menu. But what really shone were the recommended sweet wines – discoveries the sommelier gladly noted down.

Although the quality of the food was a pleasant surprise, it was a trifle in comparison to everything else – the game of celebrity safari, the pouting and the coquetry, the army of immaculate waiting staff, the simmering ambiance and its exclusive air.

The room itself is stunning. The Paris design company, Studio KO, has done a brilliant job on the room. Its pristine mismatch of styles and array of nic-nacs give it a relaxed, living-room feel that glows with warmth as if digitally filtered in Valencia (you Instagrammers will know what I mean). And the people are just as beautiful. You’d like to think you’re one of them. If you are, take a picture in one of the many mirrors that amplify the dining room. If you aren’t, the kissing dogs will do just fine.

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Wild Honey – St. George Street

Posted on March 17, 2015

We’d just spent the last 5 minutes slagging off the scallops when the waitress came over to clear the starters. “How was everything?” she asked with mild concern, a phrase that when fed into Giles Coren’s ultra-cynical restaurant-speak decoding device drops out the other end as: ‘like I give a f*ck’.

There was a hesitant pause. We weren’t happy but it’s a lot easier to say so when the aproned backs are turned and the dishes’ architects will remain oblivious in the basement kitchen below.

“Just ok”, said Chris in brutally honest fashion taking the table by surprise. But he was right. The relatively clean plates suggested otherwise but we’d been waiting one very long hour, neglected in plain sight, for under-caramelized scallops with spongy, tasteless dumplings and a decent mushroom veloute with smidgeons of uninspiring fungi and a soft poached egg. No fault could be found with the pork belly, it has to be said, but for just shy of £20 each we expected to be dazzled.

The waitress managed to dodge our flat response, leaving sharply as you would when an enthusiastic fundraiser bounds over on the high street. Muttering to the manager with the ever-so-slightest roll of the eyes, we figured that perhaps her question was rhetorical or that Wild Honey is the sort of place where things don’t go wrong or if they do you just aren’t allowed to say so.

Could it have been that we were four under 25s, unjacketed yet smart and reeking of Zone 3? Was it because I’d only ordered the £50 bottle of Corbières? Or was it because we booked on Opentable whilst down the pub in Shepherd Market an hour previously that meant our opinion, although asked for, didn’t really matter? Possibly. What I can say with conviction is that Michelin service this was not.

We weren’t asking for much. Merely a level of hospitality to complement the marvellous dining room in which we found ourselves. Wild Honey is quite unlike Will Smith and Anthony Demetre’s first restaurant success: the brilliant Arbutus in Soho. They leave you in no doubt as to your whereabouts. In stark contrast to Arbutus’ plain austerity, here, red velvet drapes shroud the doorway, cushy banquettes line the dark oak panelling and an impressive collection of mirrors and modern art adorn its walls. It’s warmed with soft lighting and well placed lemon fabrics, forming the classic and sophisticated look demanded of a Mayfair hangout. It’s properly, luxuriously done so that it’s not just mustard corduroys, it’s the matching tie as well.

But our main courses had some work to do. The dishes weren’t explained, so taste and photographic memories rallied to suggest I’d ordered the turbot with a medley of cockles, curly kale and blood orange; the fruit offering a sharp zing of acidity that dominated but didn’t overpower a lovely piece of fish.

The meaty mains were astonishingly attractive, well-proportioned plates of food. A generous hunk of beef came with celeriac and pomme Anna, a shin of veal in a bronze pan ready to scoop onto the garnished plate; and a loin of venison with parsnips and a slick of chestnut puree was so good it had pickled cranberries carouselling around the plate in joy. These were big dishes made beautiful with consummate dexterity.

They didn’t ask whether we enjoyed our mains – funny that – plus I’d already asked for the bill. We had to be off and the long wait for our starter hadn’t left time for sweets. But for the record they were super. Not cheap at nearly £40 a plate but there was no denying their quality.

And like a child sticking its fingers in its ears Wild Honey’s staff brought the card machine willingly. There was no apology, no patter, just exchange of plastic (my God, Coren might be right). No lasting memory other than some pretty main courses eclipsed by a dodgy scallop. And, like that, we were out of there; quicker than you could say ‘fermented ramsom’.

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Barrafina – Adelaide Street

Posted on March 5, 2015

Until this week I’d never been to Barrafina. Although I’d like to pass this off as the ice-cool evasion of what, for everyone else, had been the hottest thing since Josper grills, it really was just the significant failing of a professed restaurant buff. I couldn’t even recount a visit to Fino, the bigger, restaurantier brother of Barrafina, by way of consolation either. Both Michelin starred Frith Street and the younger Covent Garden joint (it’s more like Charing Cross), which opened last summer, have eluded me for reasons entirely unknown.

So when an old friend, (now a chef saddled with those famously antisocial working hours), proposed an early dinner one Monday evening, the chance arose to alleviate the Sam-and-Eddie shaped monkeys from my back and see what all the fuss was about. Best of all, it would be at a time that wouldn’t involve lingering in the doorway trying to stare diners off their stools in order to pinch their perch at the merest lift of a buttock. This was the only way to get a spot at one of the Hart’s incredibly popular, no-booking tapas bars.

At five sharp we were the first through the swish glass doors of the Adelaide Street restaurant, rewarded for our punctuality with the choice of any of the 29 red leather stools beside the impressive marble countertop. It wound a smooth curve before straightening and running the length of the room, its polished top and stainless steel trim coalescing kitchen and dining room with a magnificent shine.

We chose a couple next to an Estrella tap, with a good view of the solid top cooker and the deep fryers that prickled in anticipation of a good handful of Padrón peppers. It was all-at-once a triumph in design, spectacle and most surprisingly, ergonomics. You could sit here comfortably for hours, lower back in tact, surrounded by boards of jamón and glasses of sherry with the luxury of elbowroom and an unrestricted view of the kitchen: its rhythmical routine, its gentle clatter, its zest and vivacity clearly seen, heard, felt and ultimately, tasted. It was a sensory occasion culminating in the eating of some astonishingly good food.

Inspired by the tapas bar Cal Pep in Barcelona, Sam and Eddie Hart have recreated an authentic and extensive range of tapas – everything from stuffed courgette flowers to milk fed lamb’s brains with a long list of specials covering everything in between. Head chef Neives Barragán Mochado didn’t appear to be working this evening, but her brigade danced between each other popping lovely crab croquetas – balls of pink béchamel laced with crabmeat – into the fryers, along with finger-sized anchovies, dusted in flour and served them simply with horseradish alioli.

Simplicity of this nature relies on a certain quality of ingredient. A single carabinero – one of the most coveted prawns in world – was the size of a small lobster, cooked a la plancha with some garlic and olive oil. Squeeze its head onto some of their Quo Vadis bread, and you’ll struggle to find a mouthful anywhere that can match it for flavour. It was a fine example of what Barrafina do so well.

A board of Cecina de León- slices of air-dried beef – were as delicate as silk handkerchiefs, subtly aromatic with a lustre of olive oil. In contrast the hunk of suckling pig appeared from a hidden oven with a brittle skin that cracked like sugar work revealing its fatty meat beneath.

Little tortillas kept the line cook busy, requiring constant jiggling and flipping to perfect its dappled browning and fondant centre, sticky with caramelized onions. It was a dazzling elevation of egg, onion and potato into something quite exceptional.

Once you’ve got a stool, hang on to it. Linger, dawdle and order more. Savour it. Who cares what you spend when it’s this good. You’ll never recreate this stuff at home because it revolves around produce you’ll never find. It’s simply brilliant.

And if the desserts have been cleared and the cheese has been sampled and the bill has been paid and there’s a couple breathing down your neck so ferociously it’s untucking your shirt and it’s finally time to leave, remember not to sigh to heavily because it may just send a blizzard of freshly cut chives from their mise en place into the galley beyond. Barrafina on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Blacklock – Great Windmill Street

Posted on February 18, 2015

You’ve got to hand it to Gordon Ker. He’s hard at work painting the frontage of his new restaurant on Saturday lunchtime when the rest of Soho seems to be celebrating. Not only is it half term, it’s the turn of the Chinese New Year and central is manic. But tucked down Great Windmill Street, Ker is quietly putting the finishing touches to his new baby having transformed an illegal strip club renowned for it’s dodgy dealings and exorbitant rates into a neat little basement restaurant offering chops and cocktails at refreshingly low prices.

It’s a good job he’s outside. Apart from a temporary painted sign, it’s undistinguishable as a restaurant and we nearly walk right past it. He reassures us that they are open for business and so we sidle past the wet paint, safe in the knowledge that below is a reputable restaurant and not a titty-bar swindle; I’m with my girlfriend after all.

Through the soon-to-be-replaced front door we go, down into a spacious vault of all things current in restaurant design: upscaled furniture, exposed brickwork, industrial lighting and unfinished wood – the usual suspects of any independent Soho start-up. But this is done with sincerity, with insights into a shrewd restranteur’s mind. A salvaged 100 year old picture frame hangs with new purpose having been scrapped by its Mayfair home; specials are chalked on the structural girders to charming effect and a playful cocktail trolley, one of several knowing touches, helps steer the room clear of austerity.

There’s generosity in the table plan – one communal top dominates the length of the space with smaller ones around it, four or five of which sit in backlit alcoves that illuminate the roughly painted brickwork. It’s sensible and restrained and there’s enough room between tables to know they’ve favoured the diner over the cash register, which is exactly what can be said for the food.

£20 gets you what you want. Meat; and plenty of it. Going ‘all in’ gets us a few canapés for starters. These ones are about as unpretentious as nibbles can be: crackers arrive with toppings of egg mayonnaise and anchovy, others with blue cheese and pickled vegetables. There’s one called ‘filthy ham’, but in remembering what this space used to be and with no menu description, I can’t help but be put off. They feel a bit ‘what-have-we-got-in-the-back-of-the-cupboardy?’ – thrown together when Chef remembered, ‘Shit! Starters!’, 10 minutes before service. But I don’t mind because it’s honest and tasty and this place has got me in a good mood.

To be honest there’s only one thing to come for: a chintzy platter of pork, lamb and beef chops that glows like a beacon. It comes with unfussy enamel side dishes of 10 hour baked sweet potato and a heritage carrot salad. The meat, having been shocked with heat on a handmade charcoal grill and by Blacklock vintage irons, seem to tenderize in front of our very eyes, the grilled flatbread on which the chops are piled, slurping up the meaty juices to form a sinful meal in itself. A green sauce packed with soft herbs and garlic – like chimmichurri – is the universal condiment that seems to work with everything.

Drunk on a heady cocktail of new paint and charred meat, we didn’t get to the £5 cocktails or get to try the wine on tap, but I can see this place appealing to drinkers who eat as well as the other way round.

You could say the 19th century irons from their Deep South foundry are Blacklock’s point of difference, (and they certainly contribute to fantastically cooked meat), but what I like about this restaurant in particular, is its frankness. The bravery to modernize the archaic chophouse is commendable, and their ability to satisfy the inner troglodyte with a few well-sourced products is splendid, but that’s reading too much into it. It’s just nice people offering nice things, at wallet friendly prices. I say put down the paintbrushes, cancel the front door order and keep the crappy hand-painted sign. It adds to its personality. And for a while, at least, I can tell my mates of this great little place that isn’t even finished yet.

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Grain Store – Stable Street

Posted on February 15, 2015

Bruno Loubet has a couple of things in common with my dad. The first is a faint resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, the second is an admirable dedication to his vegetable patch.

For many years my dad, more Bean than Blackadder, pottered clumsily between greenhouse and garden tending to his principal family of perennials. He brandished his knobbly carrots and oversized marrows with pride, forcing my horrified sister and I into consuming mutated veg any way he could. Beetroots ended up in places they should never be seen: in chilled soups, sandwiches and wrapped in cling-film and slipped into lunchboxes; the curse of the vegetable patch well and truly blighted our early memories of food. Sorry, Dad.

But at Grain Store – the restaurant Loubet co-owns with Michael Benyon and Mark Sainsbury of the Zetter Group – the menu is inspired by the Frenchman’s love for stuff pulled out of the ground. And that’s no problem, not any more. I’ve grown to love vegetables when they’re not being forced down my neck by an insistent parent. Although there’s something disturbing about reading ‘fermented cabbages, ash baked turnips & celeriac, persimmon & chipotle ketchup and venison steak’ on a London menu that seems to revive your mother’s distant voice, that one where she’s singing “here comes the aeroplane!”.

It reads like an ordeal – the sliver of protein forming an incentive to stomach the rest. Loubet has spoken candidly about today’s generation eating too much meat and so veg is given a starring role, thrust into the spotlight like an unsuspecting stand-in to do the job of the meaty lead. He relegates the animal to garnish (confit lamb shank supplements a plate of pickled cucumber) as if to prove a purpose. I read each dish backwards before choosing – not the point I feel.

All of this would have been original and exciting if the vegetables had been exceptional. But they weren’t. A mountain of stodgy leeks arrived on a slab of fermented corn brioche, braised, not burnt as the menu had promised, which was probably a good job considering the amount of them. Lovage oil made it a nuclear green and a lovely duck egg tried, but failed, to save the dish from being an incredible hulk of mediocrity.

Baked beetroot and lentil salad was better. Little peaks of horseradish foam in particular were brilliant and whinnied for a fillet of mackerel, although slices of duck pastrami were just fine. Our onion bread with crème fraîche butter was forgotten, and when it came it was really just bread and butter – here you had to pay £3 for it.

‘Wild fruit purée, potted cabbage, parsnip crisps, bacon, roast wood pigeon breast and sausage’ was a mouthful of main course, and an average one at that. The bird in its ketchuppy condiment was much better than the cabbage and the crisps, which seemed to defeat the object. It was a messy, rectangular plate, each component presented in separation so that it looked like an abstract traffic light.

Seaweed sushi was a hockey puck of bland rice, each grain stuck so fast to its neighbour I’m surprised we didn’t spot a Pritt-Stick somewhere in the open kitchen that gave us a full view of its inner workings. The hake and pak choi were well cooked and waistline-friendly, but vanilla butter gave the bowl a sickly, car freshener scent. It conflicted unpleasantly with a waft of black garlic puree that was smeared excessively around the bowl like one almighty skid-mark. I chose not to finish it.

The main courses were unbalanced to the point of feeling contrived and not handled with enough love for green, root or legume to really shine. Re-establishing the humble vegetable is a noble mission, but here it’s made to seem an impossible one. Loubet certainly has loftier ambitions for his vegetable patch than my dad ever will, but not ones that leave me any more enthused.

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Eight Over Eight – King’s Road

Posted on February 13, 2015

A couple of years ago, Tatler, the magazine synonymous with goings on along the King’s Road, said the following in its 2013 Restaurant Guide: ‘The great thing about Eight Over Eight is how consistent it is. Dinner on a Monday, late lunch on Sunday, even when the Mongol hordes descend on a Friday or Saturday night, it goes on doing what it does so well’.

It was, indeed, Friday night and the Mongol hordes – I couldn’t have put it better myself – were upon us. This being Valentine’s weekend, they’d galloped in from Essex and other far-off lands two by two, their polo necks high and their tits even higher, occupying four tops with an infuriating entourage of coats, cards and flowers. The restaurant must have anticipated their arrival because each linen-covered table was protected with cheap paper sheeting. They were clearly putting measures in place to prevent expensive laundry bills – heavily made-up faces slipping onto the tablecloths can cause nasty stains, especially when they’re loosened with tears jerked by their ‘fella’ whispering sweet nothings across the edamame.

Anyway, Tatler’s synopsis was accurate, that is if they found Eight Over Eight to be habitually very good at providing extraordinarily long waits between courses and forgetful, impersonal service. The Mongol hordes had obviously left the kitchen in hot water: “meltdown” I think was the expression the waitress used as she shredded my short rib of beef at the table a good 45 minutes after the starters were cleared. It was exceptionally good, although I was too worried about missing the opening scene of Fifty Shades of Grey at the Curzon up the road to fully enjoy it. Yes really.

A braying crowd began to swell at the bar as the ark of lovers began to burst at its rivets. “Backs!”, waiters barked as they squeezed past the queue that was forming at the matire d’s stand, and the manager complete with earpiece – because no pan Asian restaurant can be seen to lack a slick looking twerp with a bit of tech in his ear – was flushed as he apologised for the delay. What he failed to apologise for was the two forgotten drinks orders I’d already given up on. It certainly wasn’t all ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’, although there were bits and pieces that were excellent.

Duck and spring onion sui mai, were so moreish we ordered another steamer. Together with the hoi sin dip they formed the magical combination of salt, sugar and fat that we Brits love about Chinese food. Prawn and black cod gyozas were heart-touchingly good, in fact, everything on the restrained dim sum menu looked brilliant – as our neighbours tucked into squares of pork belly in black vinegar I rued not ordering that. My short rib was certainly impressive enough to interest a couple of Americans next to me who yee-hawed in amazement as I tucked in with some brown rice.

Not quite so good were the limp edamame, the chilli salt squid – more crisp than seafood – and a pad Thai that was pleasant enough but served in that dated way that requires you to finish dressing it: little piles of cashews, chillies, spring onions and limes sat in corners of the plate.

By 9 o’clock the table was covered in saucy drops and greasy prints, the way all good Chinesey meals should end, but most of those were from the sloshes of heavy-handed waiters. Perhaps that’s why the paper sheets were down. Was it the presence of the Mongols that was wreaking havoc in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor? Or was the hospitality simply below par? Either way, the guys at Tatler were wrong. We left in a rush, paying the bill mid-way through the mains for a smooth getaway. It was one of those nights – Friday 13th as it happens – where fortune wasn’t on our side. And we weren’t going to wait around for a cookie to tell us that.

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Portland – Great Portland Street

Posted on February 10, 2015

It’s Friday lunchtime and Portland is packed. It’s been this way for the three and a half weeks since opening the waitress tells me, due, in part, to a five-star review from Timeout’s Richard Ehrlich who deemed the latest restaurant from Will Lander and Dan Mortengau of the Quality Chop House and 10 Greek Street respectively, a place of pure ‘astonishment’.

The upside of this is that, surely, I was in for a treat. The downside: I’m left tableless, perched on a stool with the glass fronting inches from my nose, my back to the restaurant, looking out on a rather unremarkable stretch of Great Portland Street and equally visible myself to the scrutiny of Fitzrovia’s lunchtime rush. I was in a culinary vivarium, a gallery exhibit of animate modern art entitled something along the lines of ‘Man Lunching Alone’. I seemed to be attracting as much interest as The Louvre’s Salle des Etats.

But it’s no wonder that eyes are drawn into this striking addition to an otherwise tired road, too far north of Oxford Street to be disturbed by lost shoppers and one with few other eateries of any quality – there’s Villandry and Nandos somewhere nearby. From the outside it’s sophisticated and inviting, smart but casual if such description extends beyond dress code, and inside it’s similar – think Pollen Street Social without the suits or linen. Exposed round bulbs hang from the ceiling with coiled filaments aglow; schoolroom wooden furniture is used with austere trendiness and sharpened by elegant tableware. The open kitchen adds spectacle, shelves of pickling vegetables and pretty plates some much needed colour and expectant diners drool and passers by peer, pressed up against the glass like Charlie Bucket to see what all the fuss is about.

But on my visit, Chef Merlin Labron-Johnson’s food fell short of the wizardry Timeout, and the Willy Wonka-like fascination had lead me to believe. Having said that, it started well. A canapé-sized croquette of pig’s head was extraordinarily crisp, its interior a piggy fondant of fatty slow-cooked meat. Served on a blob of kimchi mayonnaise with some mandolined pickled radish it was a £2 morsel of face-melting quality. The starter proper – new season leeks, smoked scallop roe and ash – wasn’t as good. Limp baby leeks the size of scallions criss-crossed the plate in wilted despondency, too small to deliver enough allium sweetness and perhaps too dainty to clean properly – I was left with grit in my teeth. The roe was nice, thick like taramasalata and subtly smoked, quite lovely with the bread and its unusual whey butter that was light like a mousse.

The game pithivier heralded by Marina O’Loughlin as ‘a pie of wonder, an über pie’, with its black truffle and game sauce looked and sounded as good as her description. Sadly it was meant for two, so I was left with a rather uninspiring selection of main courses and opted for pigeon that arrived in exploded view, the bird dotted around the wide-lipped bowl in an exhibition of diminuative butchery. The breasts, portioned into four pieces, were cooked as rare as pink blood diamonds; deep and gamey in flavour they were excellent although the legs, feet and all, were tough and meager. The rest of the dish was rather indifferent; the mushrooms were reasonable, the pearl barely bland, the game smoked tea insipid, faintly acrid and tasting of brown. Yet the side dish was a triumph. Large florets of cauliflower were simply roasted until butter-soft, their heads slightly scorched and heavily scented with thyme. It was the dish of the day.

It was a meal of allsorts – some lovely, some not – but nothing launched me into the echelons of astonishment. That’s a huge achievement for food, one that perhaps only an über pie can manage. I’ll have to come back in tandem for that.

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