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.

Lockhart on Urbanspoon

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

Social Meat Club at The Sun and 13 Cantons – Great Pulteney Street

Posted on November 26, 2014

The Sun and 13 Cantons is a complete and utter mouthful. It’s also a pub with a difference.

First, lets clear up the name. It derives from the Swiss woolen merchants that used to be nearby. The 13 Cantons, it turns out, correspond to the sovereign territories of early modern Switzerland. ‘The Sun’ part? Who knows? Maybe it was shining on its founder, a likely story because it’s been a blooming success for ages.

Since the mid Eighteenth Century it’s been everything from a Masonic Lodge to an electro music venue. The late Nineties even saw names like Carl Cox and The Chemical Brothers grace the decks of its basement bar.

But things have changed a bit since then. Recently the Fuller’s Brewery pub have changed the focus of their residencies, collaborating not only with DJs, but creative kitchen teams in an attempt to reinvigorate the hackneyed pub grub that we’ve become so accustomed to. Their Parisian style dining room plays host to exciting pop-up restaurants, the latest of which, Social Meat Club, is around for the next two months and is well worth a visit.

But it’s still very much a pub. You pay at the bar with cash; you have to take your own drinks back to the table, and are made to feel like a leper when you don’t order a pint. ‘Our ginger beer is non alcoholic’ the barman kindly reminded me with a mixture of surprise and condescension, as if he’d never heard someone order a soft drink on a Thursday lunchtime (it is the start of the weekend after all).

And who can blame him? Up until now, what had been the point of going to a pub if you weren’t going to booze to help you throught the afternoon slog at the office? Certainly not soggy fish and chips or a microwaved pie and mash. But, for the time being at least, teetotalers as well as tosspots can hit up The Sun and 13 Cantons for a good reason: the knockout food.

According to their menu, Social Meat Club marries traditional British with a Scandinavian twist. Sounds worrying, I know. Scandinavians haven’t the best reputation for cooking. You only have to go to an Ikea café to realise that. And with this in mind, one may be forgiven for heading to SMC expecting bits of indeterminate meat to be bullied by dill, partnered with lingonberry and served up on sections of cheap, flat-pack furniture.

But I needn’t have worried. The food was comfort refined, just the ticket to get you through a harsh, dark winter. And their wasn’t a ropey meatball in sight. Smoked chicken sausages were so meaty you could be forgiven for thinking they were pork. The earthy cep puree (I’d love to know a better way to eat mushrooms) and sweet onion jam the perfect complement. Buttermilk chicken wings with a cabbage and chilli slaw and charred corn mayo were about as Nordic as I am, but great nonetheless. Lovely chunks of hot smoked salmon with pickled fennel, radish and cucumber on sourdough was about as traditional as it got.

Mains were difficult to choose. Lamb, deer and pigeon; mussels, pork and monkfish filled an extensive menu. I had the Ox. Cottage pie of the cheek with smoked bone marrow mash and carrots. It wasn’t really a pie at all. Just a whopping great cheek, slow cooked and gelatinous so that it barely required chewing, topped with a piping of lightly torched mash.

The entire bill came in at under £20. I would have paid that for a bowl of the smokey, anisey juice leftover from the cheek. The value for money was astonishing. Proper restaurant food at pub prices.

Preserving by way of smoking, salting and pickling is so trendy right now nearly every modern restaurant can be guilty of ‘doing Scandinavian’. But few have got a balance like Social Meat Club. The cooking is uncontrived and honest, it’s the best thing to happen to a pub since the smoking ban. It’s just a shame it isn’t here to stay.

The Sun and 13 cantons on Urbanspoon

Le Gavroche – Upper Brook Street

Posted on November 21, 2014

Unfortunately for John Lewis, Monty the penguin – this year’s insufferable advent of the festive season and the repugnant herald of Christmas – didn’t, as he has with many, whip me into stiff, frenzied peaks of excitement for the big day. It did, however, remind me that this year is going to be as big and as expensive as ever and so for that reason, I went for lunch at Le Gavroche.

At this time of year Le Gavroche is far from miserable. It’s jolly festive, a portal to a cheery Christmas past (a ghostless one in a Dickensian sense but in no way lacking spirit) as warm and welcoming as your grandparents’ living room following their annual Winter Fuel Payment.

But that’s where the similarities end, unless your grandparents are one of two couples that popped in through a side door and are probably residing in equal splendour in an apartment upstairs. Le Gavroche has a distinct aura. Largely unchanged since its opening in the late Sixties, the traditional elegance of its interior has survived the restaurant’s move to its current Mayfair site. The place’s history is palpable, its prestige persisting, it’s a timeless homage to all things haut cuisine. In short, it’s pure class.

The red walls of the bar, womb-like in their maternal comfort, were the first signs of the restaurant’s synonymy with the Christmas palette. Gold baubles decked the garlands of spruce and pine that nestled in every corner forming something in between Santa’s grotto and a stately Scottish cigar lounge.

Huw and I came late, finding our dining companion on a tartan couch among the decoration. Our very own Sri Lankan Saint Nick. Out came canapés with a seasonal nod. Gravlax with cream cheese was nice enough, daintier than my parents do at home but not much better, alongside mushroom croquettes.

Orders were taken, and so were our half-drunk apéritifs (it’s the sort of place where carrying your own G&T downstairs to the table is considered unbearably strenuous). But as it turned out you needed two hands fight your way past the Christmas tree on the staircase. In true C. S. Lewis fashion, the other side of the wintery foliage presented a different world altogether.

The restaurant itself is unfashionable in a deep-green, low-ceilinged, patterned-carpet, tropical-shrub, starched-linen kind of way. It’s inviting and delightfully out-dated; First Class Titanic made available to all: birthdays, business lunches and blind dates altogether in the most revered of dining rooms.

The food was, as you’d expect, French. Soufflé Suissesse, the Roux classic, was like a savoury île flottante, covered in Gruyere and swimming in double cream. A decadent dairy overload that for me needed a pinch more seasoning to really sing. A Carpaccio of beef was standout. Waterbathed for a matter of minutes and neatly sliced, it was crisscrossed with mayonnaise and as delicate as you like. Beets and a slightly crispy salt beef sandwich completed a wonderful dish.

The large scallop came with plenty of shaved truffle and was cooked with skill. Two purees, one of white bean, one of mushroom, were quite unremarkable and didn’t match the powerful flavour of its shellfish sauce. Stone bass was gently flavoured with Middle Eastern spices providing a momentary deviation from the Frencher-than-French menu; the little pastilla in particular was a lovely accompaniment.

A pig cheek that gave way to the shadow of the knife was incredibly tender, the belly ravioli more a gyoza than traditional pasta and a red cabbage puree offered an interesting acidic hit. The main was meagre, even for a tasting menu. Cloches were whisked away to reveal a plate of perfectly cooked venison with an earthy artichoke puree and light shallot rings, on to which was poured enough sauce to baste a whole deer. It’s a shame there wasn’t more to eat it with.

The Cheese trolley was impressive. A cumbersome fixture that required all of twins Ursula and Silvia’s Perberschlager navigational experience. It should have come with hazard lights and a reverse beep. It was extensive and unexplainable, although they could have tried a bit harder. We sat there dumbfounded before deciding on a spin of the roulette wheel: whatever she thought was good. To be fair, it was.

Chocolate and orange cake felt like a bit of an afterthought. Little hemispheres of chalky chocolate ganache sat upon a tolerable sponge. The orange gel and orange segments were the best part. Petit fours seemed even further down the mind of the pastry chef. Nougat had nought flavour whatsoever and the white chocolate truffles were too boozy even for my taste buds.

Talking of booze, we’d already sunk a trolley load. The wine pairings seemed to work with most of the ‘Menu Exceptionnel’ but as the reds accumulated (at one point we had four different glasses each), the first to hand was often slurped. The only gripes were over the pudding wine’s sweetness and the lack of, well, anything in the rosé that came with the Carpaccio. It was almost too fresh and not far off sipping iced water.

I couldn’t tell you the prices because my menu came without them. But I sure as hell knew about them after. Perhaps this little omission played a vital role in the meal’s pièce de résistance: a final slice of immersive theatre in which you collapse, pale and sweaty at the dizzying expenditure you’ve just incurred. Or perhaps it’s just a simple way of culling the people that have to ask and therefore can’t afford.

The food at Le Gavroche is certainly tasty but I’ve had more inventive dishes elsewhere. With its two Michelin star price tag, it was ever so slightly disappointing. The cooking is undeniably restricted by its past. It’s a London institution that showcases the foundation on which fine dining has been built in this country. It can’t progress too far, it must remain largely the same as it’s always been but that’s its charming attraction. That’s why it’s packed from midday on a Monday. That’s why tables are still buzzing with merry guests at half 4 in the afternoon. That’s why it’s such a treat to spend time there; to escape the stresses of modern life. I could quite happily hibernate there for the whole of winter.

Afterwards I felt like we’d played a part in our very own nativity. It had been a pilgrimage. A visit to the gastronomic landmark to pay our respects to the most famous culinary family of all. Excusing the egotism, our visit was much like a verse from The First Noël:

Then entered in those wise men three, Fell reverently upon their knee, 
And offered there in his presence 
Their gold…

Was what we got in return Christmas come early? Well, yes and no.

Le Gavroche on Urbanspoon Square Meal

The Grill at The Dorchester – Park Lane

Posted on November 20, 2014

 Bob Baker – C&C Guest Review of the Month 

Gone are the days of the glamour, the refinement, the elegant clientele. The wealth remains, but the class has long since dissipated. The Coupe de Champagne struggled to justify itself against the backdrop of barking Australasians and a carpet littered with ghastly ‘wheelie bags’-the unnecessarily oversized briefcase of the modern era. ‘C’ and I had arrived a little early, a consequence of our giddy excitement for the opening night of the Dorchester’s new Grill room, and found ourselves grumbling over the drunken hoards like a pair of old farts, whilst labouring to enjoy the crisp mousse of a Laurent Perrier. From afar, we looked upon the Grill’s ornate entrance as the staff organised themselves with the nervous excitement of a West-End cast before opening night. With great eager, all attempted to busy themselves and look official, desperately trying to find themselves a role amongst the conservative over-staffing of a restaurant launch.

As we neared the desk, and were spotted by the staff, it was if a switch clicked, and in a moment they snapped into gear offering up to us all the welcoming niceties of a choreographed script. To our every whim, everyone was clamouring to attend, but it was the tall dark-featured Frenchman that pressed himself foremost and won the chance to show C and I to our table. Our early reservation had signalled kick-off. Our waiter would be the kind-faced Basque, watched over hawkishly by the Maître D’ with a look of uncompromising expectation. We had a nice table, I wasn’t sure if we would be assigned a dud given our lowly status, but all seemed well as Tom Aikens and his merry ensemble were seated adjacent.

After being welcomed by a beautiful salmon rillete, C & I opted for the lobster chowder and Lemon sole goujons to start. The chowder was fantastic, the goujons a little bland. To follow, we shared the entrecote given that we wanted a ‘grill’ rather than Michelin restaurant experience. The meat displayed the perfect amount of tenderising fat so synonymous with the Angus breed. The only murmur from our table was that the meat should have been allowed to rest for a moment longer as the blood seeped onto our plate, but given we ordered rare and didn’t want a cold slab of meat – it was understandable. Reminiscent of the Grill of yester year, our rib arrived, and was hence carved on a trolley – a well-received feature of continuity between the restaurants of new and old. For dessert, we both opted for a Soufflé – and although the chocolate lacked in flavour, the pistachio and caramel was superb. We might have found room for another.

As the curtains came down on the dinner, we reflected on what we had experienced. The plates were accomplished – the Chef here is certainly talented – of that there is no doubt. Indeed, Jocelyn Herland was overseeing the kitchen (Head Chef of Alain Ducasse’s namesake restaurant across the hall) so a poor dinner was near on impossible. However, the lingering consideration we left with was whether the Dorchester’s new Grill room is a Grill at all, or rather another permutation of a top level restaurant. The bill came to nigh on three hundred of the Queen’s finest pounds and we certainly hadn’t boozed copiously. The bill made us question whether we might as well have eaten amongst the glittering Michelin stars of the hotel’s main restaurant.  Although in the same room as the old Grill, it is completely reimagined. A question a diner must ask is whether this restaurant has found a separate identity from the Hotel’s other offering. The space endures, but what fills it is quite different.

The Grill at the Dorchester on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Yauatcha – Broadwick Street

Posted on November 15, 2014

Time flies when you’re having dim sum. Being drip-fed dumplings somehow quickens the clock.

Underneath Broadwick Street in Yauatcha’s basement dining room, steady time evaporates. Down there it’s perpetual night. The pitch-dark ceiling with its constellation of tiny spotlights purges the room of daylight. Cerulean glass, gloomy brickwork and obsidian floors interrupt quotidian reality: you can eat dim sum from midday to midnight, completely ignorant to the passage of time; unless you have a film to catch, which I did.

In fact, Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, Interstellar, positions ‘time’ at its thematic heart. Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut whose job is to find an alternative planet for humanity as Earth nears its apocalypse, an intergalactic mission illustrating the mind-boggling effects of time dilation. This sees (spoiler alert) McConaughey, now aged 124 – but looking as fresh-faced as the day he departed – reunited one last time with his elderly daughter as she sees out her final hours, her grandchildren at her bedside. Theoretically, it’s reasonably sound. Apparently.

But our meal at Yauatcha challenged such physics. It was certainly proof that a dim sum dinner could defy space-time theory. It proved the inverse. Time didn’t slow in this black hole of a restaurant, but sped up, so our meal flashed by in an instant. So quick in fact I had no idea what I’d eaten. But, then again, that tends to be the case with Chinese food.

Dishes came and went, often before we’d even finished, and too often without distinction. The staff were unremitting. Our glasses of tap water were taken away after a few gulps and replaced with fresh ones. Plum sauce was replenished after just a teaspoon’s use and sweet and sour cucumber batons came so frequently my tongue nearly pickled. In a moment of criminality, the last of the crispy duck skin was stolen prematurely, forcing me to snatch if from the disappearing plate. It was over efficiency, bordering on a nuisance.

The food came out bit by bit. Chunks of crab in a peanut dressing were lovely but too few, the accompanying salad of green veg and enoki mushrooms nice enough. The second dish demanded a savouring moment. Light, buttery pastry encased a sweet portion of venison, a refined, gamey counterpart to the char-sui bun. Chicken dumplings, har gau and pork and prawn shui mai were delicate mouthfuls, all full of flavour; as was the mushroom cheung fun, although its slimy mouthfeel was rather off putting.

One large seafood dumpling arrived in a scalding fishy broth looking suspiciously like a preserved cerebral cortex, but one worth taking the roof off your mouth for. Aromatic duck pancakes were excellent, the Chinese greens – miniature bok or pak choi I never know the difference – were just okay, more of a filler than a dish in itself. The chilli squid, oatmeal and curry leaf turned out to be similarly nondescript, a little greasy and garnished with what tasted like breakfast cereal.

And it was all over in a poof of steam, a somewhat unremarkable illusion of fine Chinese cooking. It was good, but not great, a surprise when you consider Alan Yau’s restaurant has, for the last nine years, maintained both its Michelin star and the gravitational pull of supermassive black hole to dim sum epicures.

Most impressive was the way over an hour had disappeared into thin air. The waiters were given an extra thrill when were forced to ask for the bill with our final course. Finishing before we’d actually finished. They must have loved it. But just where had the time gone?

Was I having that much fun I’d lost track of time? I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s just the way dim sum works. Hunger is kept at a chopstick’s length but true fulfilment seems impossible. There’s plenty of theatre to keep you going. The billowing vapour, the bamboo towers; the broths, teas, vinegars, pickles and ubiquitous dipping sauces, conspire to steal your minutes (and your money) without appeasing your stomach. Most of your time is spent anticipating the next morsel.

There’s lots going on at Yauatcha but not much of it will stay with me. In the subterranean darkness, where light cannot dictate time, it’s no wonder the moment creeps away from you. What good can exist inside a field where time is unaccounted for? Not much. Except those venison puffs. They were bloody marvellous. 

Yauatcha on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Bunnychow – Wardour Street

Posted on November 14, 2014

Everything tastes better in bread. If it’s not already an aphorism, it should be.

The people responsible for Bunnychow know it. Put good stuff in a hollowed out loaf and eat the lot. But this is not a new concept. These shrewd guys pinched the idea from South Africa, more specifically from generations of Indians migrants working on Durban’s sugar plantations who took their lunch – often curry – to work in a loaf of bread. Genius.

Bunnychow started as a pop up, as it seems did most cool places worth visiting these days, refining their bunnies (the loaves themselves), filling them with saucy slow cooked meats and packaging them in fancy boxes. It’s the only place, as far as I’m aware, to realise the potential of a humble loaf in this way.

It’s neither a sandwich nor a soup, a fondue nor a stew; who knows what it is aside from a tasty meal in an edible bowl and only £6.50. I had their speciality, The Monkey Gland, meatballs in a smoky tomato based sauce with a lick of sweetness and a pinch of spice, topped with spring onions, peppers and coriander. And it was bloody good, especially when washed down with a vial of luminous cucumber mojito.

A poster inside suggests you should take your bunny and ‘cut its head off’ then ‘rip out its innards’. It’s not nearly as violent as they make it seem. No rabbits are harmed, and simian offal isn’t really on the menu. It may look like a massacre has taken place after eating, but they give you a wet wipe for that. Their interesting but sadistic marketing strategy gives it an identity – albeit one of a satanic white rabbit – that will get people talking.

The term ‘pop up’ usually implies whatever it is will pop back down again. Back down the warren of food markets, trucks and stalls; back into obscurity in a side street of Kings Cross or Dalston, replaced by another new-fangled, ‘trendier’ concept from some bum and his mate from Brixton.

The ones that work though, seem to explode – Meat Liquor, Honest Burger, Flat Iron to name a few. Bunnychow has made it with the big boys, securing a site slap bang in the middle of Wardour Street. It’s a lesser beast than some, but I think it’ll do well.

Bunnychow on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Barnyard – Charlotte Street

Posted on November 10, 2014

Barnyard’s picket-fenced exterior couldn’t look more different from its parent restaurant up the road. From the outside, Dabbous is imposing. Its 10ft metal door and frosted windows are impervious, both physically and metaphorically – you won’t find many restaurants with a longer waiting list for tables. But at Ollie Dabbous’ latest venture in the middle of Charlotte Street, you wont need a tactical unit sporting explosives to breach the place in search of a meal. You simply walk up the steps and sit on the veranda or at the bar and wait for a table with the other cool kids whose collective farming experience couldn’t run a small holding.

Inside, there’s more picket fencing, corrugated iron and a mishmash collection of stools that look about as comfortable as sitting on a pitchfork. It’s a touch try-hard, but the atmosphere is good, the staff chequered and friendly and the mezzanine dining area is much more comfortable than the cattle-class downstairs.

The menu’s division by animal, not course, makes choosing a coherent meal impossible but somehow makes eating a sausage roll for dinner acceptable. It really is just a sausage roll too. Nothing fancy: no deconstruction, no elevation just sausage meat wrapped in pastry and served with the humblest condiment of all: piccalilli. But it’s done so well I would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its popularity was such that its lustrous pastry shone from nearly every table, brown and glossy, as neat and pretty as patisserie’s window whilst packing the meaty punch of a butcher’s block.

Sharing is difficult; squabble inducing as a matter of fact. I’m sure fraying relationships have given way over the last half inch of picnic perfection. But then again most of the dishes are too good to share (they recommend 3-4 per person). Barbecued bavette was brushed with black treacle, served lovely and rare although the sweetness didn’t translate into its eating, something I didn’t mind. It was extremely good with a mustardy mayonnaise and a homemade dill pickle.

Chicken wings seasoned with smoked paprika, garlic and lemon were large, crisp and citrusy and obviously prepared with care. Although a bit on the salty side, I could have had a bucket of them. Writing for The Guardian, Marina O’Loughlin criticised them for tasting like a salty pizza. Salty they may be, but pizza they are certainly not. Perhaps she should review her pizzaiolo because the majority of dishes coming out of Joseph Woodland’s kitchen – formerly of Launceston Place and The Square – are great and taste exactly of what they are.

Charred broccoli came with a potent vinaigrette. The large portion either needed more charring or less dressing, the acidity by the end was cheek-puckering. Corn was lathered in salted butter and sprinkled with meadowsweet, served on its cob with a bolt bored in one end, looking like it had been jump-started and bought to life in a moment of Shellian innovation. The foraged herb added to the bright flavour and wasn’t as I feared it would be – a needless and contrived addition to fit the pastoral theme.

For desert, traditional apple crumble had the addition of cloudberries. The waiter didn’t know what they were and I still don’t, but berries stewed and covered with a sweet, nutty topping taste much like any other so it wasn’t an issue. Proper clotted cream so thick it wouldn’t leave your spoon was a good accompaniment, and the pint bottle of popcorn milkshake turned out to be excessive but surprisingly good (these come ‘hard’ with a shot of alcohol if you fancy).

I enjoyed the lot, even more so when the bill came. A meal for two with a couple of drinks and some chips came to £60. Service charge wasn’t included, a clever ploy to tip generously in cash, something the staff in all fairness deserved. I was half expecting them to fall into line and perform the Tush Push but there mustn’t have been enough space.

Barnyard on Urbanspoon Square Meal