The Hand and Flowers – West Street, Marlow

Posted on January 30, 2015

The Hand and Flowers can’t be a pub because it’s nobody’s local. Sure, it looks like a pub. It has low, uneven ceilings, and even lower beams – the type that require a sign of caution – and a few ale pumps standing to attention, pricked like a set of hare’s ears, ready to maintain the pubby frontage with every pull of a pint. But it isn’t a pub. It’s a high-end restaurant in boozy drag, one that’s bloody difficult to get into.

It becomes clear on entry. A handsome extension houses the bar, which, topped with polished pewter, gleams against the exposed brickwork and glows like bread oven, its under lighting exhibiting a thing of real beauty. And rightly so – the bar is supposed to be the chamoised jewel in the pub’s crown; but this is far slicker and more refined than your average. No one props it up with a nonchalant elbow (there are chesterfields instead), there aren’t KP nuts hanging from the ceiling like perpetual decorations to Phil Mitchell, nor are their fag machines or condom dispensers in the bogs. Instead there are H&F own brand soaps and smellies contributing to the faint whiff of privilege. It’s hallowed ground for epicures, fabled for its two Michelin stars and heinously long waiting list, and has the ability to make you feel special before you’ve even had a drink. And what other pub can to do that?

There was a card from the management and a couple of complimentary glasses of Poire Granit waiting at the table – it was a special occasion for many it seemed – a lovely touch that redressed the staff’s initial distracted reception as they tapped away on tills leaving us standing awkwardly to contemplate who in their right mind would want to buy a Marlow FC training top for £50, on sale in a glass cabinet by the door.

In the restaurant, chunky wooden furniture was matched by the tableware. Little blocks lodged cutlery in position, salt and pepper sat in the hollows of a hefty slab of hardwood, a ligneous butter knife was propped up with a wooden strut so that is pivoted like a see-saw and a pubby amuse bouche of lightly dusted whitebait came packed in a newspaper cone on another specially designed piece of timber. When all were on the table together it was like a grown up play set, a defiant choosing of rusticity over sophisticated silverware. The same carpenter may well have whittled some of the waiters too, their continental stiffness and formality a reminder that you were here to eat, and eat well – which we did.

A modest bowl of lovage soup was one of the more complex starters, concealing within its herbaceous depths, finely diced apple, smoked eel and a delightful tortellini that oozed ham and cheese – possibly gruyere. It was fragrant like celery, subtle and unusual but heavily reliant on its garnishes for interest and a good punch of flavour. Kerridge has the ability to make great things better, but fell short with his sausage and whole truffle demi ‘en croute’. At £16.50 it needed to be brilliant, but the dish, only marginally bigger than a golf ball, failed to deliver the heady intensity of truffle or the comforting hug of a sausage roll. It was a picnic snack with vertigo, elevated to giddy heights with dubious success.

A slow cooked duck breast, made famous by Great British Menu 2010, lacked nothing in the flavour department. It was perfectly pink, and boldly seasoned, bordering on salty for those with delicate palates. A livery faggot, buttery savoy and exceptional chips cooked in the fat of the bird were proper accompaniments, no messing around whatsoever.

The pork main had many more elements, some of which were truly memorable. Little pomme dauphines so light they could have floated away, a pickled mustard leaf which was a startlingly tasty mouthful of greenery, a meltingly-sticky cheek and the tenderloin itself, which was served pink – the way only consummate sous vide cooking can achieve. The garlic sausage was slightly underwhelming, a miniscule piece hidden beneath the wilted leaf, but an inexplicable slice of cold cooked ham was a piggy step too far. The crispy hock sprinkled on a side of kale ensured that every inch of the animal somehow found its way into my mouth.

The appeal of the dessert menu was great enough for even the most replete to perform a gastrointestinal reshuffle in order to make room. Crème brulee was thick and eggy under a brittle top; a shot glass of whisky beer came along side. A heavy malt gateau with malted milk ice cream was given sweetness by a caramel sauce and a vital sour note in the yeast tuile filled with crème fresh. They were simple, unfussy and meticulously created. You only have to read Kerridge’s cookbooks to appreciate how much time goes into getting them just right.

But two stars? I can’t see it. Pitching The Hand and Flowers as a pub seems to have moved the Michelin goalposts – they’ll let a few things slide as, after all, it’s not a proper restaurant. Rubbish. It is. It’s a very good one and should be judged accordingly, right alongside the watertight operation and haute cuisine of places like Le Manoir or Midsummer House. To me, a single star seems more befitting, but who am I to judge after just one visit. Perhaps ask the regulars, they’ll know better. That’s if you can find any.

Hand & Flowers on Urbanspoon Square Meal

The Manor – Manor Street

Posted on January 29, 2015

I’m not one for giving restaurants marks out of ten. I find it impulsive and superficial, fickle and vague, but I’m even less keen on being made to wait for something I want – like food I’m paying for – and assuming you’re reading this to because you want to find out if The Manor in Clapham in any good, then here you go: 7/10. It’s closer to ‘must try’ than ‘don’t bother’, and phrases like ‘worth a visit’, ‘good effort, but could do better’ and ‘not as good as The Dairy or Fera, but better than Rabbit’ would be mildly accurate. Let’s put it this way, if you’re willing to hike to Clapham to eat, you might as well do it properly at Gill’s original spot on the common.

So you can close this tab and get back to your browsing. I wouldn’t want to keep you hanging like we were at The Manor – our meal faltered and stuttered like a buffering Youtube clip – as lengthy pauses interrupted the flow of head chef, Dean Parker’s, accomplished menu.

The restaurant, itself, is a crossbreed of cold war bunker and modern country kitchen. Ascetic, save a smart zinc bar, the dining space is stripped back to its brickwork, although a trip to the loos suggests this austere look may have been an economical necessity. A print out on the mirror of the wholly unfinished gents apologised for the money running out and encouraged you to decorate the walls with whatever you fancied – I assume they meant with pen, but even piss and shit may have made it more inviting. It was cold, with a scruffy British-pub-cum-murder-scene look that has never been acceptable in a reputable restaurant. It was Clapham’s answer to the Saw film’s bathroom, a place so shabby I’d rather hack off my own foot that spend too long in there. Lets hope the money starts coming in so they can get it sorted.

Back upstairs in the safety of the dining room, comfort was restored with sourdough gift-wrapped in hessian and warmed by a heated grain pack. A whipped chicken butter was smeared on a chilled pebble, utterly defenceless to swoops of the torn loaf but on tasting, not quite as brilliant as The Dairy’s smoked bone marrow equivalent. Nevertheless, it was all gone before we could add pieces of pork and fennel salumi that arrived shortly after.

Other starters included barbeque crispy chicken skins pressed together like little terrines and coated in an intense, sticky sauce that demanded the piquant hit of homemade pickled kimchi. Cornish crab and celeriac was a lovely combination. Wafer thin slices of celeriac clung to the picked meat like a wet t-shirt and chopped hazelnuts speckled it with bite. It needed to be eaten quickly. Linger too long, and, in a state of flux, the large peak of sickly crab foam slowly stifled the lot. Within a few minutes the dish’s clean freshness was unsubtly wiped out by one gratuitous splurge of a siphon.

Burnt kale, cavolo nero and toasted almonds looked like the remains of a cremated compost heap but tasted much better. Roasted beets, horseradish and fresh cheese appeared to have been loaded into a slingshot and aimed at the plate from a distance. It was attractive in a chaotic way; natural I suppose. Beetroot juices clung to the plate in a Polynesian tattoo of purple syrup, drawing together wedges of golden and purple beets with reliable, balanced garnishes.

The menu offered ‘Julie Girl’ monkfish and ‘Sweet Promise’ sea bass. God knows what that meant but I half expected these fish to arrive ready to read my palm or relay my drive. Sadly not, but the morsel of sea bass was cooked brilliantly, its roasted salsify and chanterelles earthy and original. Smoked cod, came in cream with potato and sorrel, mackerel with cucumber, nori and dill. They were full of flavour and boldly seasoned with the raw acidity of citrus or something similar.

Smaller plates like these don’t lend themselves kindly to long waits. The ratio of eating to anticipating was far from golden. By the time the meat came, we were all so hungry it was wolfed down with little conversation as to what it was we were ingesting. It could have been anything. If suckling pig belly, braised head, morcilla & squash was as good it sounded Chris must have loved it. Merely reading ‘hay smoked pigeon, fermented grains, parsnip and malt granola’ left a gamey taste in the mouth but Danny couldn’t remember it was gone so fast. The hanger steak tartare left me with no more than a vague memory of conspiracy. Nuggets of bone marrow, rich egg yolk and creamy onion puree connived to clog my arteries like a roast spud in the sinkhole, but did so luxuriously.

Desserts didn’t sound worth waiting for so we asked for the bill. It wasn’t cheap nor overpriced, somewhere between £40 and £50 a head without drinks. On the way home we agreed 7/10 seemed appropriate for just about everything. Except the toilets – they were awful. Just make sure to go before visiting.

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Rabbit – King’s Road

Posted on January 17, 2015

Brought up on a smallholding vineyard in West Sussex on an alfresco diet of hunting, foraging and lungfuls of country air, the Gladwin boys enjoyed a bucolic childhood, one that left them fated for the food business. But even so, a restaurant cooperative inspired by the frolics and the landscape of their youth couldn’t have been anything more than a pipedream. Who else in their right mind would pay to eat flora from the underside of a rotting trunk or choose ruminant offal over prime cuts unless they’ve been bred that way? Well these days it seems just about everyone.

Foraging is on trend. What was once a form of survival has become a fashion statement in the restaurant world. It’s seen as wholeheartedly British and probably why London in particular can’t get enough of it. And so came the three brothers’ time. It was as if they had predicted the coming of a wild-food-boom and, right on cue, they seamlessly dovetailed their careers to satiate the capital’s clucking for a taste of the English hedgerow.

Here’s a bit of back-story: Richard followed in his restaurateur father’s wellie-steps, apprenticing alongside him before opening restaurants in New York and managing a place in Battersea. Oliver became a chef and trained in notable places all over London as well as the River Cottage in Dorset where he crossed paths with rural pinup Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, joining his band of merry, middle-class, hunter-breeder-gatherers. The youngest, Gregory, became a farmer and trusted supplier – he now owns 450 acres of land from where a lot of their produce is grown.

And so when forage-fever peaked they decided to go it alone together. First they opened The Shed in Notting Hill, delivering seasonal Sussex produce suitable for sharing. It was a huge hit. So much so that soon after, out of The Shed sprung Rabbit on King’s Road. It wasn’t just a sibling it was practically a twin. It remained true to their beginnings, offering exactly the same fare in exactly the same way to another moneyed part of West London; somewhere else for well-to-do, Home Counties expats to exhume their countrified upbringings and talk fondly of dressage, fly-fishing and their tweed clad retrievers.

All of this is enough to give you green fingers and grubby nails. The sort of story to unearth the agrarian in anyone. I can picture metropolitan converts sitting wistfully on Rabbit’s iron tractor seats recalling memories of unloved chickens, sit-on lawnmowers and muddy waterproofs; scraping the barrel of pastoral allegiance and asking themselves why they didn’t spend more time rummaging for lovage instead of counting down the days until they could get the hell out of there and settle in the city. In these cases nostalgia tends to presents itself in hand-me-down Hunters and a threadbare Barbour on a riverbank in Marlow. But plonk them in here with a bit of Pony Club patter and before you know it they’ll have shamelessly romanticized a rustic youth to rival the Gladwins’ own.

Rabbit’s whitewashed brickwork, wooden furniture and dodgy taxidermy might remind some that they once used to live in sight of a field, but the whole place signposts just what they missed out on. It’s a celebration of rural living, drawing on those glorious Nutbourne days.

I met with some longstanding friends for dinner. Three brothers, as it happens, one of whom was a proper agri’ lad. Fittingly, we were regaled with tales of beating, bullocks and rutting in the back of Landies as we tucked into mouthfuls – canapés as they are known in the city – of crab bombs with seaweed mayo and mushroom and marmite éclairs. The former exploded with the savouriness of brown crabmeat but the choux was a damp squib. I neither loved nor hated it.

The rest of the menu comprised a selection of plates divisible only by speed of cooking; and fast or slow isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to cobble together a coherent meal. The small plate sharing debate – which in my mind will never work nor satisfy unless you’re eating Japanese izakaya or Spanish tapas – was broached once again.

Hearty winter dishes of wild mushrooms, celeriac puree and truffle and parpadelle with duck ragu merit a full-sized plate. Big, rich flavours are not to be nibbled at. It isn’t rabbit food. Well it is, but you know what I mean. You need a spoon and a hunk of bread and a knitted jumper. It’s that kind of fodder.

Venison with onion squash puree was delightfully seasonal and jazzed up with nuts and mosses like an edible woodland floor. It was deer, diet and habitat on a plate. Two vegetarian dishes, one of chargrilled leeks, the other of brussel sprouts (presumably Nutbourne veg) were each partnered with cheeses to reasonable effect but ensured there was no respite to the meal’s richness. I know the season dictates, but the light touch and zing of spring wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

Leftover mussel shells were solitary reminders that a beautiful dish of gurnard and artichoke once stood; gravestones in memoriam to a delectable plate that didn’t last long. Lamb chips with harissa were popular jenga blocks of slow cooked meat, bread crumbed and lifted by lemon and parsley. There were others, I remember the quail and mackerel offerings were tasty and well executed, reminiscent of Rob Gills’ cooking at The Dairy, but slightly less refined with fewer cheffy techniques.

Desserts included all manner of lovely things – homemade takes on Vienetta and Bourbon biscuits, baked apples and treacle tarts. The only misfire was the ice cream flavoured with rose. Overly perfumed, it was an unpleasant blend of pensioners’ knicker drawers and Turkish delight.

By eating in Rabbit, we knowingly partake in a slice of the English simple life. We share the Gladwins’ early memories of their idyllic rural setting and London’s foraging fad. But we also have to share our dinner. Something I’m not so keen on doing. I don’t want the fork to have more action than my stomach as it pokes about delivering thimblefuls to a voracious appetite. Courtesy stipulates to never take too much, leave plenty behind and NEVER take the last mouthful without asking. I don’t want to worry about decorum at dinner. But I suppose in this instance, such British food requires stoic British eating.

Rabbit on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Roka – Charlotte Street

Posted on January 8, 2015

I must visit more bad restaurants. In fact I’m making it a resolution. Either that or I need to develop A. A. Gill’s punitive and hyperbolic knack of making a restaurant seem so repellent you’d rather lick the surface scum from its blocked guttering than ever enter through the doors of such a godforsaken totem of taste-bud loathing; a morgue of an eatery in which ingredients are cut open, probed and then cremated to destroy all evidence of culinary ineptitude… It wouldn’t be too difficult; but, in all honesty, I haven’t got the minerals.

This is because when it comes to reviewing them, good restaurants can be relatively dull. Waxing lyrical is a tedious process, full of monotony and thesaurus-thumbing – you’ll invariably find that ‘good’ and ‘tasty’ wear out as quickly as a boy racer’s brake pads. And yet with each mishandled adjective the reader’s interest wains. What you end up with is the class swot’s school report, a manuscript of their smug satisfaction and your own bootlicking applause. All those saccharine superlatives make it sickly and sentimental and unpleasant to digest. Besides, it’s boring. Few care for success stories but many crave a cockup. It’s the gory details of abject failure that really get us going.

It is, after all, far more entertaining to hear about a complete shocker of a restaurant than a perfectly reasonable one. We relish the tale of another’s hour-long wait for a leathery steak or their unscrupulous grilling of a waiter who doesn’t know his silverside from his shin – especially when it’s from the safety of a tube carriage deep underground. On our way home from work we bay for an upstart’s blood or the dismemberment of a celebrity chef who’s got it so wrong; and when Fay Maschler or Grace Dent deliver the damning thumbs down we snigger, fold up our Evening Standards and chuck them over our shoulder with a conceited smile of someone who has saved forty quid and an evening of disappointment.

So, with my minuscule readership in mind, this year I’ll endeavour to go out and waste some money on bad meals for your entertainment – even if it’s only for a zephyr of writerly inspiration before I head back to yet another decent restaurant somewhere on Charlotte Street. In fact, Charlotte Street has more good restaurants than you can shake a rolled up tabloid at. My most recent visit took me to Roka, a sister of Zuma and the first of Rainer Becker’s chain that now has branches in Canary Wharf, Mayfair and Aldwych. I went because everyone seems to love it. And now I see why – it is, indeed, really rather good. How boring for us all, so I’ll keep it brief.

It’s all knotted wood and robata smoke, fur coats and maki rolls, sleek suits and sashimi. Chefs holla in unison as flurries of small plates leave the open kitchen in billows of dry ice and fly around the room like a Greek wedding at The Fat Duck. There’s a shochu-fuelled energy to the place, the product of too long spent in the bar downstairs – a glamourous holding pen where you’re flecked with ice chips and ignored by barmen and encouraged to drink Japanese liquor until you’re rambunctious and noisy and your head’s buzzing like a nostril full of wasabi. When this happens you’re ready to eat.

The contemporary, izakaya-inspired menu (Japanese food for drinkers) is extensive. I keep ordering – ten or so for the two of us. I can’t seem to stop. Olivia apologises. The waitress smiles and brings edamame. We hoover them up, along with precise sushi rolls, one of softshell crab and cucumber, the other of crispy prawn and avocado. They were fresh, well made and a far cry from the hoary lozenges that haunt conveyor belts in shopping centres and airports. This was proper.

Prawns the size of Smarties tubes were covered in a light filigree of tempura stalagmites next to a rather insipid dipping sauce. The salad of beansprouts was, as expected, salady and nice enough. Hot off the robata were burly glazed chicken wings and a rack of baby back ribs. The latter was not in the least infantile; it was the size of a xylophone and big in flavour, playing meaty notes of sweetness and spice. It was doused in a fine reduced stock and sprinkled with cashews.

The celebrated Nobu staple, miso black cod, arrived in the shade of the leaf it was cooked in, so delicate and yielding its pearly flakes slipped away at the slightest flick of a chopstick. Its caramelized exterior was the only thing preventing its complete disintegration. But its accompaniment was baffling. A wacking great smear of yuzu tasted like a heavily processed lemon curd. It delivered such an artificial slap around the chops you could have been in the centre of a TOWIE tiff. It’s citrus hit rendered the fish’s finely balanced marinade and exacting preparation worthless. It was just fine without it.

You get the picture. There’s so much more to bore you with but ‘good’ offers a suitable median. For that I’m sorry. It’s difficult to fault because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Great, if that’s what you’re after, terrible if you prefer treading where few will dare to put your innards on the line in the name of investigative ingestion. But it must be said that you won’t find many places fit for the slagheap on Charlotte Street. Roka’s certainly not one of them. Unlike this review, it’s unapologetically good.

Roka on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Charlotte’s Place – St. Matthew’s Road

Posted on January 5, 2015

I’ve seen them at it. Hunched over moleskine notepads on the front row of an Electrolux demo arena, guffawing at the wisecracks of a soon-to-be TV chef and competing amongst themselves for the dumbest question award. Dying to be noticed they barge through the mob to stick grubby fingers in pickles and purees, ‘mmm-ing’ and ahh-ing’ in a witless gaggle. They clamour to get their cookbooks signed and photographs taken with sauce down their fronts, spewing the toe-curling stock phrases of amateur criticism – ‘how succulent’, ‘so moist’ – through gobfuls of grouse. Utterly inspired they’ll drop into Waitrose on the way home and spend a fortune on organic ingredients, only to butcher them three ways and smear them on a cold plate like a grim Kandinsky.

It has to be said you can enjoy all things edible without being a ‘foodie’. Just don’t call yourself one. Those snooty members of the middle class who do have -through iteration of brazen pompousness – stigmatised the word and made themselves the butt of mockery. Their crowing tales from Fitzrovia, of which the main protagonists (‘my foodie friends and I…’) seem to revel in the giddy heights of self-proclaimed sophistication, not only bore everyone into a coma but reveal how much of a pretentious fart they’ve become. Attaching ‘ie’ to the end of their interest is not only infantile, it has simply made it easier for the rest of us to classify these self-important know-it-alls into one obnoxious bunch.

So while these culinary groupies latch onto a particular chef or restaurant in the hope of a signature or free pud, the rest of us go out to eat. I tend not to give a running commentary of how the cauliflower veloute is slipping down each muscular ring of my oesophagus, or groan loudly into my ‘divine’ chocolate fondant as I suck it off the back of my spoon. I simply say if I like it, or keep quiet if I don’t.

But as I sit in my favourite local restaurant, Charlotte’s Place on Ealing Common, demolishing the breadboard while I wait for my parents who are – in spite of its proximity – late, I overhear the sycophantic flattery of a proper foodie. ‘So smooth’ they croon from the corner of the small room referring, I think, to the pomme puree with the daube de boeuf. Now I don’t know whether they found this surprising. Purees are, after all, liquidised so that even the most slack-jawed and toothless among us can get the stuff down and two rosettes and 30 years of practise, I imagine, is enough time to beat even the balkiest of lumps out of some mash. Charlotte’s knows what it’s doing. This diner hadn’t got the foggiest.

I half expected it though. Such insufferable utterances are bound to be heard in a restaurant that has just this year won a coveted spot on Opentable’s ‘Fit For Foodies’ list (normal people might even enjoy them too). And it’s in good company. A mere whisper of The Square, The Ledbury or Murano is enough to get the most rudimental foodie salivating like Pavlov’s dog, but Charlotte’s in many ways is ‘fitter’ than most.

It’s small and neighbourly in a Chez Bruce kind of way. A ring-the-doorbell, hang-your-coat-up place that’s like dropping into an old friend’s for lunch; that one you don’t see very often who always makes an effort and happens to be a bloody good cook. And, unfortunately for the rest of us, renders it the perfect discovery to show off to your foodie pals.

But it’s that good I can live with it. Just. In my case it’s the place to take the family; the banker for birthdays when good, sophisticated food and a warm atmosphere is what you need. And to their credit, each year has been as brilliant as the last.

This time a single ravioli of black pudding alighted like inky flying saucer, its freight crumbly and meaty, far from extraterrestrial and perfectly at home in the mouth. A rich shellfish and cauliflower cream finished a brilliant starter. Others were equally good. Chicken liver parfait served in a jar with brioche toast and the pumpkin soup, walnuts and whipped goat’s curd were classic and festive dishes; the soused mackerel and the pork cheek hard to turn down.

The pork belly main was standout. Particularly special was the gentle hum of a garlicky milk puree that tied the meat impeccably to its tender snail garnish. Baby carrots and parsley provided morsels of freshness to an otherwise unctuous dish.

Duck breast, spiced parsnip and chestnut gnocchi was a seasonal delight. The confit leg with its foot still on was skilled and spooky, hooked rigid as if a cryptic scroll had been prised from its grip – its clean and classical preparation good enough to exhaust Monica’s bank of Masterchef superlatives. The braised beef with onions and mushrooms was wintery and spoon-friendly – a casserole of the highest order that nearly brought Dad to tears. Unfussy sweets of lemon meringue tart and poached rhubarb with white chocolate and cream cheese mousse were tasty and light and balanced the menu nicely.

For as long as it does what it’s doing, Charlotte’s will continue to charm. There’s no danger of it suddenly ‘doing a foodie’ and launching into a strut like a gastronomic demi-god. It’s grounded, unassuming and unlike sex, surprisingly brilliant first time around. Let’s hope more of Opentable’s informed, adventurous and appreciative diners -and not their foodies – will now venture west to be wowed. Our local treasure deserves to be shared; Ealing can’t hide this place forever.     

Charlotte's Place on Urbanspoon Square Meal

The Lockhart – Seymour Place

Posted on December 9, 2014

“Bread is the king of the table”, an American once said. So it’s no wonder a blistering, cast-iron tray of the stuff was ceremoniously lowered into the middle of the table with pageantry akin to a medieval banquet. The only thing missing from this royal centerpiece was a mouth with an apple in it.

This wasn’t your typical loaf. It was cornbread, the cornerstone of Southern American cooking and the waiter’s one and only recommendation. For him to speak any higher of it he’d have had to stand on a chair. But despite being slathered in butter and honey it was the most ordinary thing we tried; although in the context of this meal, ordinary was nothing to be scoffed at.

The rest of our dinner at The Lockhart was so damn good it made this well prepared American staple seem mediocre. If the cornbread was king, then Mississippi-born Brad Macdonald’s other dishes have reason to feel aggrieved. Legitimate claims to its title came from all over the menu like a gastronomic game of thrones. Not least, his homemade butter. Finger-dippingly good, this stuff didn’t need a crusty loaf anymore than I needed a second helping. It was salty and rich and stupendously good. Try it. You won’t get better.

By dredging the South’s culinary depths for inspiration, Macdonald has generated dishes as brilliant as they are unfamiliar. A bowl of lamb sweetbreads, sticky with madeira, bacon and parsley and a couple of gently pickled quail eggs took snacking to a deliciously new, E-number-free level. The American love for bowls – these ones deep and ceramic – continued with a crawfish dip and something called ‘dirty’ rice. The former was delightful, chowder-like but richer – the result of plenty of cream cheese – with slices of toast boasting a secret ingredient of ground pork crackling.

The latter was, indeed, dirty. Positively pornographic for seafood and offal lovers. Minced chicken innards and brown crab were mixed with rice and dotted with oysters creating a muddy-looking, great-tasting bowlful you won’t get anywhere else. Devilled crab came smeared on a plate with more ‘cracklin’ toast, a seafood spread to rival a mackerel pate. Southern fried chicken as good as I’ve had was let down by its green bean casserole, a large portion of beans drowning in grey slop (something nearing a thick mushroom soup). This time it tasted the way it looked and was left largely untouched.

The plate of smoked pork belly, pumpkin puree and praline had visual elegance – the sort of style that percolates from stints in the kitchens of Noma and Per Se – its autumnal colouring and refined halos of barbeque reduction (not sauce) giving it an attractiveness matched only by its flavour.

A hulking slab of short rib was the stuff of smoke pit folklore – it’s eating an ascension of the staircase to meatopian bliss. The cucumber and tomato salad was both refreshing in savour and surprising in existence – apparently American’s do eat salads that aren’t merely a wedge of iceberg drenched in creamy dressing (add egg and bacon and you have a Lockhart starter).

Marry this with a few belting craft beers and you have a one off. The Lockhart’s relaunch has a reworked perspective on American food that makes it novel and cool all over again. It’s like a little pocket of Shoreditch has been packaged and sent to a quiet neighbourhood near Marble Arch. The staff are toned-down trendy compared with their East London counterparts but passionate and sociable nonetheless. We welcomed our waiter’s warmth as we shivered in the persistent draught of a bumpy wall in the corner, coveting the cosy banquette that was practically inside the kitchen in all its heated glory.

The Texan owners have nailed The Lockhart second time around. They haven’t gone bigger – the menu is condensed and considered (5 starters, 6 mains) – nor have they thrown a Hail Mary; they’ve hired real talent and got the cooking spot on. Their sweet and sticky monarch may not have left a lasting impression, but the rest of its court certainly did.

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Berners Tavern – Berners Street

Posted on December 1, 2014

Jason Atherton is a modern day Midas. His prospects have yielded so many nuggets of restaurant gold he’s caused a feverish migration. A manic rush not seen since California circa 1850. Everyone wants their own shake of the gold pan, their own seat at an Atherton table and the inevitable dunk into a dippy egg that goes with it. These overzealous gannets are the reason I’ve only just made it to Berners Tavern more than a year after its opening. And even then I only manage Sunday brunch.

The most depressing thing is that he’s just about everywhere. As ubiquitous as pulled pork. He hasn’t just got one decent restaurant I can’t get a table at; he’s got 5 in London alone. I’m sure I’d have the same problem in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, all of which are now Atherton occupied. His incredibly successful blueprint flutters from so many conquering flagpoles worldwide, Gengis Khan would’ve been proud.

But I’d be surprised if there was a more impressive dining room in his empire than Berners Tavern. Masquerading behind its lowly title is a restaurant as much a pub as Pollen Street Social is a working men’s club.

From its street entrance the glass vestibule provided a necessary moment to take it all in. Its towering gold walls were adorned with interlocking paintings and photographs of various sizes, a carefully considered jumble of subjects and styles patchworked to stunning effect. The five-metre high bar was backlit orange like a huge lump of liquor-preserving amber that needed carabiners and a harness to negotiate. Stuccoed ceilings, ornate and reminiscent, loomed over modern insertions: the automatic glass doors between the kitchen and restaurant floor (the first of their kind I’ve seen) were slick and silent, lifted straight from a Bond villain’s lair. And then there was the space. Acres of it. Enough room for a few suitcases either side of your table and an expansive game of footsie. It was truly magnificent.

The first dish was not so. Dressed prawns and lobster came in a coupe glass with finely sliced lettuce, croutons and unwelcome cubes of jelly. A mouthful of fishy aspic is an unpleasant thing. You can’t help but think of the leftover gunk in a Billingsgate fridge or the geometric ejaculate of some ocean trench-dwelling eyesore.

A swig of a different cocktail – a gin and elderflower concoction – gladly reset the palate, with the barman being kind enough to peg a clipping of dill to the glass’ edge like a sort of love toy for your nostrils. They’d thought of everything.

They’d certainly put some thought into improving the dreary monotony of a risotto. I never order risotto, but this autumnal nest of pumpkin and Parmesan was home to the most fragile of bread crumbed quail eggs, meaty shreds of ham hock and kale crisps. It was one of the nicer starters I’ve had in recent memory.

Cod isn’t high up on my priorities either, most of the time it’s bland and flaky but Head Chef Phil Carmichael’s offering was neither. Its gruyere and herb crust, the accompanying gnochetti with braised leeks and clams and purple sprouting broccoli made a wonderful plate of a fish I only tend to enjoy when its battered and served with chips.

The pulled pork bun was about as good as they get, with pickles and the best chips I’ve had in London. A bottle of Heinz Ketchup was plonked rather unceremoniously alongside, totally incongruous to its surroundings but in keeping with the breeziness of brunch. The same excuse saw the day’s menu seat eggs and pancakes alongside roasts, sandwiches and sharing dishes, with a snippet of a la carte thrown in for good measure. The Sunday menu is a mixed bag and hotely in the extreme, but what little we tasted of it was very good.

Berners Tavern is Atherton’s behemoth. Its grandiosity is striking and, visually, it’s exceptional, but after that it’s much like the rest of his fleet. The cooking is proficient and inventive, the service professional albeit brisk. Undoubtedly it’s a success – another exemplary model in Atherton’s guide to restauranteuring – but does it necessarily make for the very finest of dining experiences? Commenting on my Sunday experience, no. Not when you can’t help but feel slightly negligible in its vastness; like you’re just another diner impersonally handled on the systematic conveyor belt of the day’s covers.

Its blanket magnetism and the franchised impression of its core offering will prevent Berners Tavern from ever entering the pantheon of personal favourites; but having said that, I’ll certainly be back for dinner.

Berners Tavern on Urbanspoon Square Meal