Favourite Restaurants

There are more restaurant reviews on this blog (see Label 'Restaurant Reviews') than appear on this Favourite Restaurants tab.  The ones covered here are those I return to regularly - all are in London.  Before you read about them you may like to read this piece explaining my approach to reviewing.

Favours for Food

There is much chatter right now about food bloggers and whether you can trust their restaurant reviews.  At first I ignored it as, like many other bloggers, I write for fun not for food.  The furore centres around two things: the food blogger who responds to the siren calls of PR's offering complimentary meals; and the blagger blogger who offers a favourable review in exchange for a free meal.  As the debate goes on remaining silent on the subject is beginning to feel like I'm keeping my head down so as not to attract unwelcome attention so, here goes. 

I can only speak for myself.  Personally I don't accept invitations from PR's to review restaurants and how anyone has the brass neck to blag a meal is beyond me.  I thought of simply tweeting "please read the About Me section on my blog", but that seemed a little attention seeking.  Instead I'm writing this post for those of you who take the trouble to read my blog.  Firstly, I've been on both sides of the fence.  I've worked as a restaurant reviewer and then I went in a totally different direction.  I started blogging over 3 years ago simply to share a love of good food.  I wanted to celebrate chefs, restaurants, writers, traders and food producers who I felt were doing a particularly good job. 

In the case of restaurant reviewing, I do it anonymously and I pay for my food.  Occasionally in a restaurant I'm given a new dish to try.  This happens because I'm a regular and the kitchen values my feedback.  By this time I've already written about the place and they often don't even know I do that sort of thing.  I occasionally manage to book a table during a 'soft opening' - it's good for the diner's wallet and a learning exercise for the restaurant.  Its not a time for reviews as the restaurant hasn't yet settled into its stride.  If I like the restaurant and feel it's going to be my sort of place, I go back later and pay full price before deciding whether or not to write about it.  

According to some professional reviewers, the lack of negative reviews on a blogger's site means they're not to be trusted.  Yikes, they mean me, so, here's the thing.  I don't expect my readers to wade through a post to find out whether or not I like a place.  If I have a good meal, I go back and if I have another positive experience I write a review.  Very occasionally a place is so spot-on I say so after a first visit.  If I don't have a good meal I don't vent my spleen on my blog, I just vote with my feet.  

Just to be clear, I do not get paid to review, nor do I get myself into situations where I feel I have to write a review.  This means I write about places I really like and that is the only reason you will not find negative reviews on my site.

Thanks for reading.  Now, let's eat.

January 2018

Fried Gamba
at Bar Gresca, Barcelona

A few years ago I was taken to a very swanky restaurant in Barcelona.  As someone who tends to follow their nose when it comes to food, I was puzzled by the lack of cooking smells.  The plating was precise.  Tweezers had most certainly been employed.  The food was cool, very cool, and not in a good way.  The service was positively frosty.  It was the most sterile restaurant I have ever encountered.  I had to see the kitchen.  Taking a slow walk to the back of the room, ostensibly seeking the loo, the scene through the small glass panel in the kitchen door - there for the benefit of staff, not diners - was revealing.  Lengths of stainless steel tables, drawers, cupboards and fridges, some open anonymous containers, a few white-aproned chefs plating-up delicate morsels of food with forensic intensity.  This was more like a laboratory than a kitchen, a place where food was stripped of personality and presented as something denatured.  I like a well-plated dish and these were undeniably pretty but, to me, the whole experience was unappealing.

Fresh Anchovies marinated with sesame and lemon
at Bar Gresca, Barcelona

The next day, after sniffing-out possibilites, we walked into Gresca.  Owner/Chef Rafa Peña 
worked at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli and Martin Berasategui's Lasarte so the modern techniques were there, but so too were great Catalan ingredients being sympathetically handled.  Gresca made a much more positive impression on me.  I wrote about it here.  It was, and still is, a modern restaurant with a great love for Catalan ingredients.  It's a great place to go for a Catalan tasting menu.

Being in Barcelona last week we intended to return to Gresca but were lured into the place right next door, because what was there was Bar Gresca.  The original Gresca restaurant was slim and constrained.  Taking a lease on the premises next door has allowed for a loosening of corsets.  The two premises, now joined into a U shape has allowed for one large, well equipped kitchen to serve both restaurant and bar.  And, joy of joys, some of the bar seating is almost in the kitchen.  We went twice.  The first time, seated close enough to the kitchen to see every dish come out.  On the second visit we could almost shake a pan for them.  My kind of eating.  We'd also been told they kept good natural Catalan wines.  My kind of drinking.

Bikini of Lomo Iberia & Comte Cheese
at Bar Gresca, Barcelona

So, what was coming out of said kitchen?  Sea snails with mustard; Grilled beef liver with kimchi; Lacquered aubergine with herbs; Pork sandwich, creme fraiche and pickled vegetables; Cuttlefish with tomato; Lacquered mackerel; Pizza of burrata and black truffle; Veal cheeks with wine; Grilled Veal Nose; and a dish of Green peas with black truffle.  Desserts were on the classic side with Pear tarte tatin and Pavlova with figs.  This is small-plates dining and prices range from Euros 4 for a plate of Pan con Tomate to Euros 18 for Baby Cuttlefish with tomato.  For seasonal specials, like truffle dishes, expect to pay Euros 20-27 for a plate.

Berberechos with vegetable vinaigrette
at Bar Gresca, Barcelona

I'll spare you the full list but we ate Berberechos with vegetable vinaigrette - the freshest of cockles served in their half-shell on a bed of salt were sweet, citrusy morsels bathed in their liquor; plump fresh anchovies had been marinated in sesame oil and lemon;  Leeks in 'Salpicon' came as sliced roundels blanched, topped with spoonfuls of herby lactic cheese and strewn with sharp, piquant, pickled Guindilla peppers; Bikini of lomo iberico and Comte cheese - the thinnest slices of fried bread enclosing the filling to make the most addictive of sandwiches; Fried gamba were so sweet and crunchy that they begged to be eaten whole in their delicate shells; Surf-n-turf is rarely my thing but a dish of Meatballs with cuttlefish was outstandingly good - and refreshingly the least instagrammable plate of brown food I've seen for some time.  For me, Desserts weren't the best thing here, but of the four on offer last week, I'd very happily order again the French toast served with a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

Meatballs with cuttlefish
at Bar Gresca, Barcelona

We drank very good, modestly-priced natural Spanish wines by the glass recommended by Sommelier Sergi, and were very happy to find a bottle of Lluerna from Pinedes' Els Vinyerons, a label we recently discovered in London via importer Aubert & Mascoli.

French toast
at Bar Gresca, Barcelona

Bar Gresca is top of my list for the next visit to Barcelona.  The Gresca website is undergoing change - it's clearly not a priority for them - but here's a link to a recent review which echoes pretty well how we felt about Bar Gresca Bar Gresca visit by Food Barcelona, though I can't share Food Barcelona's longing for craft beer to join the drinks list!

My one criticism would be that the lighting was a challenge to my limited photographic skills but Gresca has lighting for cooking, not for styling.  And if you don't sit within a pan-shake of the kitchen, take a walk-by.  This is what a proper kitchen looks, and smells, like.

Calle Provença, 230
08036 (Eixample) Barcelona
Metro: Diagonal (Exit: Provenca)
Tel: (+34) 93 451 6193

August 2017

Cockles with Fennel
at Westerns Laundry

Finding a really good fish and seafood restaurant in London is, to my mind, a challenge.  We are an island so how can we consistently get it so wrong? Yes, I know there are a few names that come up when fish is mentioned but the place that always has Lobster Thermidor and Grilled Dover Sole on the menu is not what I'm looking for.  What I want is a place where the menu is lead by the fish that has been landed by day boats; where the menu changes daily and where a quick look at the chef's notepad for that week gives you a coherent picture of the thinking going in to it.  I don't believe I'm being unrealistic in expecting this yet I am so often disappointed.  So, here is my dream London restaurant that is "Focusing on produce from the sea" Westerns Laundry.  Not only does head chef David Gingell sit down to write those notes but he posts a photo of the notepad before service.

Front Row
at Westerns Laundry

The name, Westerns Laundry, doesn't so much conjure up pictures of pan-fried John Dory as memories of hauling a bag of washing down to the laundrette.  The space was once a laundry and I like a bit of history.  A single visit will have you appreciating the semi-industrial feel, attention to detail and convince you this is a seriously good place to eat.  The 1950's factory-style building stands out in the middle of a residential street on Lower Holloway's Drayton Park so even though, at the time of writing, there is no sign to draw your attention, you really can't miss it.  Part of the ground floor is now home to this second neighbourhood restaurant for the team behind Primeur, with its more meat-based menu a 20 minute walk away in Stoke Newington. 

John Dory with Roasted Fennel
at Westerns Laundry

Westerns Laundry has a truly ingredient-led kitchen where David Gingell's true love of fish is clear. Expect British and southern European flavours with a little Asian influence.  Prime ingredients are highly seasonal and sensitively cooked, whether they are dealing with a fillet of Brill or a fennel bulb, the skill of the kitchen in bringing out flavours in everything I have eaten here, in two visits, is joyous.  Cod cheeks, crumbed, deep-fried and served with an exemplary tartare sauce; a bowl of Cockles with shaved fennel followed by the freshest fat, juicy fillets of John Dory with fennel which, in some hands I can think of, would have been a bad idea to order.  Here the shaved fennel had been acidified to a slight softness and, for the John Dory, roasted to bring out the vegetable's natural sugars.  On a second visit I've had a plate of roasted courgettes and fennel with the freshest ricotta and an opalescent fillet of cod on a bed of braised courgette.

Roasted Fennel and Courgettes with Ricotta
at Westerns Laundry

I'm drawing attention to these vegetables to make a point.  They appear on the menu a lot right now, and rightly so as they are at their best.  By judicious use of cooking techniques and flavouring - with herbs in particular - they have never been at all 'samey'.  I've had Beetroot with roasted shallots and parsley which sounded way too simple, even for me.  Next time I see it on the menu I won't hesitate to order it.  I've shared a scalding pan of fideo - one of their favourite dishes (and mine too).  This one was Baked Squid with Cockle, making use of the squid ink, of course, and veal stock, with the finest of pasta and a generous dollop of alioli.  I'm on for the Baked Lobster version at some point.  The pudding list is short and sweet.  If there are at least 2 of you, go for the fantastic Rum Baba for sharing, and/or a glass of Botrytis Pinot Gris.

Rum Baba for two
at Westerns Laundry

Plates are for sharing, with appetisers £2.00 upwards, small plates to large ranging from £4.50 to around £16.00.  There's a large sharing table too.  There will be good bread - if ever there was a place for needing bread to mop up, it is here.  The food achieves a fantastic juiciness and you won't want to leave a drop.  The wine list is mainly natural/low intervention and range from £4.50-£12.00 a glass.  They had a particularly lovely Savagnin Cavarodes 'Pressé' Jura on my last visit at £9.00.  If you enjoy water kefir, as I do, you could start with a refreshing glass of Agua de Madre.   

Currently Westerns Laundry is open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday, but only Friday-Sunday for lunch, reflecting its neighbourhood nature.  Dinner gets busy, so best to book ahead.  The kitchen brigade are highly skilled and front of house staff are amiable, knowledgeable and attentive.  For me, this is my go to place in London where the focus is firmly on produce from the sea and where there is a really good wine list to go with it.  And, carnivores, don't worry, there's always something on the menu for you. 

Out front
at Westerns Laundry

Westerns Laundry
34 Drayton Park
London N5

September 2016

I confess I've never yet joined the queue at Bao's first restaurant on Soho's Lexington Street which opened in April 2015.  Patient I am not, and the fact the queue forms at this 'no bookings' restaurant on the opposite side of the street somehow makes it even less appealing.  I'm sure this is not a peculiarity of their choosing.  Yet I've been eating the addictive Taiwanese steamed buns from the threesome behind Bao - sister and brother Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung and his wife Erchen Chang - for the past couple of years from their Saturday pitch on Netil Market and at the odd private event.  Originally there was their Classic Gua Bao (braised pork, ferments, coriander, and crunchy peanut), then came the Confit (Pork Belly, crispy shallots and spicy hot sauce) both once tasted, never forgotten.  The news of their plans for a second, roomier Bao in nearby Fitzrovia was very welcome to this resolute queue avoider. 

OK, the first time I waited 5 minutes, but I was at the head of the queue.  The second time, around 2.15pm, three of us walked straight in.  This is the best kind of 'fast food'.  Service is sweet and efficient, the order is taken quickly and the freshly prepared food arrives soon after.  It's 'eat and go' food without any hint of feeling rushed.   

The menu is a little different depending on which Bao location you choose.  The very first thing I tasted here at the Fitrovia restaurant was Sanbei Octopus.  Juicy tentacles (not always a given with octopus), a luscious plum-like silky sauce with a hit of ginger and Thai basil and little cubes of crunchy beef fat. So good my pencil wrote a two in the box on my second visit like it had a mind of its own. 

Cod Black Bao with Tomatoes, Plum Powder
at Bao London

My two visits also covered the Bao Classic, a Lamb with green sauce and soy pickled chilli, and the Cod Black.  The Cod, coated in squid ink and both ng and hot sauces, arrives in a less pillowy bun with a slightly disconcerting greyish tinge imparted by black sesame seed.  It's dramatic and fabulous.    A dish of different coloured Tomatoes showered in Plum Powder made, at this perfect time of year for tomatoes, the best juicy, peppy side dish.

Mapo Aubergine
at Bao London

Of the Chi Shiang Rice Bowls, the Beef Shortrib, Marrow and Eryngii mushroom came with a Soy Cured Egg and a little bowl of beef broth to mix in to your own taste.  The thinly sliced beef was tender, the rice the perfect consistency, all enriched with silky beef marrow, and I loved it.   A bowl of Mapo Aubergine was probably the best treatment of aubergine I've ever come across (a difficult fruit to make interesting, I think, but maybe that's just me) caramelised and silkily-sauced.  The rice here was a little too sticky for my taste but the big flavours of chilli and coriander, both fresh and pounded into a green sauce, made for a very good vegetarian bowlful.  A small bowl of XO Sweetcorn with Beef Butter was a sweet, savoury delight. 

Puddings, at this point, come in the form of Milkshakes (sounds like there are plans to add more options).  Ordering a glass of Chocolate and Toasted Rice felt like a step back in time but it was a surprisingly good note to finish on.  I'd also recommend the Hong Yu tea sourced direct from Taiwan and served in tiny traditional tea pots and bowls.

Expect to pay around £18 a head including service for food.  Beer, wine and cocktails are available and fairly priced.  The ground floor room is flooded with light and all the seating is at a horseshoe bar plus a small window-facing section.  Downstairs is windowless and cocoon-like.  You get to see what's going on in the kitchen and there is a sharing table.

I'm sure Bao don't need to keep their little stall on Neil Market E8, but I like the fact they still pitch up there on Saturdays and that they refer to it as as their "Original Bao Bar". 

If I am faced with a wait next time I find myself on Fitzrovia's Windmill Street, I suspect I may forget my aversion to queueing. 

31 Windmill Street
London W1T 2JN
Mon-Sat 12-3 & 5.30-10

May 2015

A glass of VdF "Moussamoussettes" Dne Moshe
at Brawn

Everyone knows Columbia Road for its Sunday morning flower market where traders line the Road specialising in bulbs, herbs, cut flowers or potted plants.  It's quite a sight but if you suffer from claustrophobia, get there early or you'll find yourself shuffling along toe to heel with what feels like half of London.  There are some good individual shops on the Road, though many of them are only open from late in the week to catch the busy weekend trade.  This means, early in the week, Columbia Road is quiet and leafy and, well, a bit of a haven of peace really.  The draw at this time is lunch or dinner at Brawn.

Torta Fritta, Parma Ham
at Brawn

Occupying a corner site in what was a wood-turning workshop, it's a lovely light-filled space furnished with reclaimed tables and chairs.  Brawn opened not long before I wrote about it here in early 2011.  The restaurant garnered a host of positive reviews then quietly got on with its job as the perfect neighbourhood restaurant in a largely residential area of Bethnal Green.  Being part of the much admired 'Terroirs' small group of restaurants, the food and wine at Brawn were, reliably good.  So, why am I writing about it again now?  Because in this notable restaurant things just went up a few notches.  A re-think amongst the original owners of the Group has resulted in chef/owner, Ed Wilson, splitting off Brawn and taking over in the kitchen.  Those of us who loved the Green Man and French Horn on St Martin's Lane knew Ed Wilson's skill.  We briefly mourned the closure of the Green Man  earlier this year in the restructuring of the Terroirs Group. Now we are re-acquainted with Ed's skills.

Raw Scallop, Celery & Bottarga
at Brawn

Lunch on a perfect Spring day this week began with glasses of gently fizzed, palest Loire rosé VdF "Moussamoussettes" Dne Moshe.  A plate of Torta Fritta with Parma Ham was the perfect appetite stimulator.  The literal translation of 'fried cake' is not particularly helpful.  Think, at least in this case, featherlight crispy dough pillows draped with slices of the very best Parma ham.  A starter of Salt Cod Salad "Esquiexada", the classic Catalan dish, was here executed with seasonal Marinda tomatoes, sweet Tropea onions and small purple olives, possibly Andalucian coquilles nicoises.  The cod was salted in-house and made for a juicy and aromatic plateful. Raw Scallop, Celery and Bottarga, came in a shallow pool of fish broth made from the scallop skirt and dressed with good olive oil.  A perfect balance of sweet seafood and bitter celery leaf and olive oil, it tasted of the sea and had us fighting for the last morsel.

Black Pudding, Squid & Erbette
at Brawn

When we thought it couldn't get any better, out came Black Pudding, Squid & Erbette.  'Surf n Turf' is really not my thing but I would have happily eaten all of this.  Soft, sweet blood cake, tender cephalopod and earthy leaf-beet, the whole simply dressed with a vinaigrette.  A glass of Saumur Champigny Piak from Bobinet was suggested and was a good match.  My perfectly cooked fillet of Turbot came with sweet, fat mussels and a helping of still crunchy Monk's Beard in a clear fish broth along with the suggested well-judged glass of mineral Soave.

Turbot, Monk's Beard & Mussels
at Brawn

We really didn't need it but managed to share a portion of Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Orange.  As top-notch as it looks.  Expect to pay £40 per head including a couple of glasses of wine and service.

Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Orange
at Brawn

Brawn is a relaxing kind of place.  The staff know their stuff and you can expect a genuinely warm welcome.  The food and drink are seriously good and the restaurant draws on some of the best suppliers in London.  Cooking is seasonal and, as they put it themselves, "The food is honest and simple with a respect for tradition".  Most of the wines are natural, sourced from small growers who work sustainably, organically or bio-dynamically.  There are a few seats at the small bar if you only want to pop in for a drink and a small plate.

If you do want to brave Columbia Road flower market and its surrounding shops on a Sunday and combine it with lunch at Brawn, the restaurant offers Sunday lunch for £28 a head, but you'd probably be well-advised to book.

49 Columbia Road
Bethnal Green
London E2 7RG

March 2015

Hake, Monk's Beard & butter sauce
at Rochelle Canteen

I've written about Rochelle Canteen before but, hard as it is for me to believe, that was almost three years ago.  I liked it very much then but now Anna Tobias is in charge of the kitchen and cooking so beautifully that I have to take you with me on a return to Rochelle.

Confit Duck Leg with Lentils
at Rochelle Canteen

It's not the easiest place to find.  You're looking for a former bike-shed in an old school yard with walls too high to see over.  You do a circuit, or two, of lovely Arnold Circus and look for a door set in the wall marked "Boys".  Press the bell and you're buzzed through to the partly-lawned yard.  It's a space that used to echo to the cries and laughter of the children of the surrounding Boundary Estate.  These days the school has retrenched to a building diagonally across the Circus and the old Victorian brick building has a new lease of life housing arts and media businesses and exhibition spaces.  Rochelle serves as a "Canteen" for them and for those intrepid good-food hunters amongst us who don't mind sharing bare tables and, sometimes, high decibel levels.

Hake with laverbread butter
at Rochelle Canteen

Head Chef, Anna Tobias, arrived at Rochelle Canteen in 2013 from Rose Gray and Ruth Roger's The River Cafe.  Anna's cooking stays true to the style of Rochelle's owners - Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold - but there's a new confidence and a particular sympathy in the handling of fish. You can expect 5 starters and 5 mains.  There's often a dish of rillettes or a terrine; maybe smoked cod's roe or brandade; when the season is right there may be a perfect plate of asparagus with hollandaise or samphire with brown shrimp.  Mains might be a gutsy Rabbit Stew; a Smoked Eel, Leek and Parsley Pie; maybe some Sweetbreads; a vegetable-based option or two; and, possibly, a simply cooked Sole or Fillet of Pollock.  Vegetables are highly valued - some of the veg, as well as herbs, are grown in raised beds in the schoolyard.  Puddings are often classics, so you might find a Lemon Posset; an Eton Mess; a Chocolate Tart; or their might be a Lemon Sponge Pudding.

Apple Fritters with Caramel Ice Cream
at Rochelle Canteen

On recent visits I've enjoyed a bowl of Brandade with a soft boiled egg and sourdough toast; a Crab and Little Gem Lettuce salad; a perfectly cooked fillet of Hake served with Monk's Beard and butter sauce; meltingly tender Confit Duck leg with lentils and watercress; another fantastic piece of meaty Hake, this time with laverbread butter; sweet/sharp Apple fritters with caramel ice cream; an Apple Galette with vanilla ice cream; and a heavenly Rhubarb trifle.

Apple Galette & Vanilla Ice Cream
and Rhubarb Trifle
at Rochelle Canteen

Being located in a former school, Rochelle Canteen is restricted to opening for breakfast, lunch and tea Monday to Friday only.  Restrictions also mean there is no drinks licence but you can take a bottle  with you and pay a very reasonable £5 corkage charge.  Handily you can pick up a bottle at Leila's Shop, a half circuit of Arnold Circus away on Calvert Avenue.

Turkish Coffee Cake & Espresso
at Rochelle Canteen

Service varies from briskly efficient to deliciously relaxing depending on how busy the room is but you never feel less than welcome.  If the weather is kind you may get a table in the schoolyard and, if  you're lucky, you might find this joyous Turkish Coffee Cake on the menu to finish with an Espresso. Expect to pay around £25-30 a head including service (excluding drinks).

Rochelle Canteen
Rochelle School
Arnold Circus
London E2 7ES
Tel +44 (0)20 7729 5677 

January 2015

Ricotta & braised radicchio
at Artusi Peckham

It's easy to tell when an area of London is heating up property-wise.  The nearest parade of shops start to get a lick of paint and an air of fresh-thinking.  SE15 is a case in point where the traders on Peckham's Bellenden Road now include ex-Ginger Pig butcher Charlie Shaw with his own Flock & Herd butchery; popular Thai street-food restaurant The Begging Bowl; Melange chocolate shop and cafe; and the very special grocer General Store where the shelves groan with foodstuffs from many London producers.  Here too is a little gem of a restaurant, Artusi at No. 161.

Taking its name from *Pellegrino Artusi, this determinedly Italian restaurant has Jack Beer as Owner and Chef (ex-Clove Club and Peckham Bazaar).  It's a relaxing kind of place with a short, understated menu and charming staff.  Simply furnished, the tables for two can be pushed together the length of the banquette seating to accommodate groups and a Long Table in the back, right by the kitchen action, can be booked for parties (seats 18).

The Evening menu may offer a starter of Seared Beef Heart with peppers or Burrata with braised radicchio.  Mains might include Venison Haunch with root vegetables or Cod with broccoli.  Expect a choice of a couple of desserts, maybe Chocolate Mousse, Tiramisu or Olive Oil Cake.  At Sunday lunch there's a set 3-course menu for £20.  Weekday lunches are even more pared-down.  The small, wholly Italian, wine list is reasonably priced starting at £20 a bottle/£4 a glass going up to a Barolo at £62.

Linguine with Duck ragout
at Artusi Peckham

This is simple Italian food of the kind that is so often done badly.  There are no hiding places, no tricksy flourishes or sauces to hide a multitude of sins. I've had several lunches at Artusi.  Each one has been exemplary.  They have included a dish of radicchio - two varieties, one intensely bitter and one mildly so - charred and paired with a whipped ricotta and dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. Another time, pillowy ricotta served with braised radicchio and tomatoes.  Both dishes were juicy and big on flavour.  Squid with Potatoes was no looker but was a pleasing plateful of tender squid and waxy potatoes brought together by a fish stock-based emulsion.  The pasta dishes are served in two portion sizes at £6.50 and £10.50.  Spaghetti Puttanesca was punchy perfection, Linguine with Duck Ragout was flavoursome and well balanced.  A deeply comforting bowl of Beef and Pork Meatballs in a herby tomato sauce was simply served with parmesan.  A light as air Olive Oil Cake came with baked thyme-infused pear and caramel sauce.  Scoops of Ice Cream a - one Coffee and one Salted Honey - were served exactly as you hope, just-melting softness in a cold bowl.  It takes confidence to serve up ice cream quite so plainly but here it's not misplaced.

Expect to pay about £50 for two at lunch.

Coffee ice cream and Salted Honey ice cream
at Artusi Peckham

There's a modesty about Artusi.  It's the word that came to mind when on one visit a party of 5 arrived for a wedding celebration straight from the ceremony.  In a world where thousands of pounds are spent on the 'big day', this was a model of restraint and a delight to observe.  I applaud the Happy Couple's choices for their big day, and for the sweet way Artusi welcomed them.  Let's have more modesty, I say.

161 Bellenden Road
London SE15 4DH
Tel: 020 3302 8200

*Pellegrino Artusi made his fortune as a silk merchant which funded his twin passions of literature and food.  In 1891 he self-published La Scienza in cucina e l'Arte de mangiar bene (The Science of Cookery and The Art of Eating Well).  He was the first to include recipes from all regions of Italy in a single cookbook and is credited with helping to establish a national Italian identity following unification.  By the time of his death in 1911, sales of the book exceeded 200,000 copies.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Barrafina, Adelaide Street WC2

Baked John Dory

at Barrafina, Adelaide Street

Did I really need to stick to my two visit rule before writing about the new Barrafina?  I know the original Barrafina on Soho's Frith Street pretty well so could it be so different?  Well, yes and no.  First there's the room.  Occupying a corner site, it's curved frontage is hard to miss and it feels so much bigger than the Frith Street original.  Inside, all the essentials of the Barrafina I know and love are in place - granite, glass, stainless steel, red-topped stools, Estrella on tap, happy staff, and the aroma of damn good food coming from the open kitchen.  Long-time employee, José Etura is front of house.  In these early days, Nieves Barragan Mohacho, Executive Head Chef for Barrafina and Fino restaurants, is hands-on in that kitchen, and what capable hands they are.  Owners Sam and Eddie Hart don their white jackets and one of them will generally be greeting and serving.

The extra space in Adelaide Street has allowed for a longer bar accommodating 29 stools and more space to wait comfortably for one of them.  It's also good to see there's space to breath for the staff, more room for equipment and, hence, a more extensive and adventurous menu.  Don't get me wrong, after 7 years of eating at Barrafina in Soho I still feel a sense of excitement thinking of what might be on the menu this time.  But the two tiny cooking areas there do restrict what can be served up even by the best chefs, and Barrafina's are very good indeed.

Stuffed Courgette Flower

at Barrafina, Adelaide Street

At this second incarnation the Barrafina philosophy holds true - top quality ingredients served up with "minimum fuss".  The menu at first glance looks similar and you're likely to find some old favourites but a closer look reveals additional sections on 'Frituras' and 'Chargrill'.  Suckling Pig's Ears or Milk Fed Lamb's Brains, perhaps.  The biggest difference comes from the installation of a Josper charcoal oven which allows dishes like whole fish for sharing to be served up in 10 minutes.  It also produces those Milk Fed Lamb's Kidneys, served on their skewer grill over a little hillock of smoking charcoal.

Dishes we tried included Crab Croquetas which were outstanding; a lovely mix of dark and white meat, good consistency and just enough chilli heat to bring out the crab flavour.  A fried Courgette Flower stuffed with goats cheese, finished with honey and a bunch of micro herbs, was pretty as a picture and, though a safe choice, was summery and delicious.  The John Dory was succulent and perfectly cooked - simply baked with a crust of breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs and olive oil and dished up with a wedge of lemon. We ordered the deep-fried Ortiguillas - Sea Anemone -  out of curiosity but didn't really get the point of them.  But the hints of iodine brought memories of seashore rockpools.  A dessert of Milhojas was as rich as it looks in this photograph but a delicious version and perfect for sharing.

If that Estrella beer doesn't grab you, there is a good list of sherries and wines , including a specially selected Manzanilla en Rama.  Personally, I find a glass or two of the familiar Cuatro Rayas 2013 Verdejo Viñedos Rueda, at £5 a glass, difficult to resist.


at Barrafina, Adelaide Street

So, yes I did go twice, and so will you.  The biggest problem now is in choosing which Barrafina to head for.  Go to Barrafina Frith Street for the cooking of Allyson McQuade - perfect small tapas.  Go to Adelaide Street for more space, a bigger menu and the fish and meat dishes that come out of that Josper charcoal oven.  Join the queue at either Barrafina for the buzz, great food and drink and excellent service.

10 Adelaide Street
London WC2N 4HZ
29 stools
No reservations, first come first served
Adelaide Street has more space than Frith Street to enjoy a glass and a bite while you wait for a seat.
Groups of 8+ can book the downstairs private dining room

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The return of Polpetto

Mussels, cannellini , three-cornered garlic
at Polpetto

I knew I missed Polpetto but until today I didn't know how much.  Its original incarnation was Upstairs at the French House on Dean Street in the heart of London's Soho.  I wrote about it soon after it opened in autumn 2010 and by May 2012 it was no more.  An awkward room and too small a space (23 covers) caused owners  Russell Norman and Richard Beatty to find a more suitable location for their spin-off from Polpo.  I doubt they thought it could take this long but the new Polpetto is now a reality, having quietly opened this week on Berwick Street just a 2-minute walk from the original site.   In the intervening period Chef, Florence Knight, has become rather better known through TV appearances and writing a rather good book - One: A cook and her Cupboard. I suspect it would have been easy for her to go the celebrity chef route, had she wanted to, but, no, she's back in the kitchen.  So, has absence made the heart grow fonder?  Or did the passage of time cloud my memory?

Cavolo Nero, anchovy, burnt bread
at Polpetto

I soon realised none of that matters.  I'm breaking my rule of at least two visits before giving an opinion because, two dishes into lunch, I was sure I would be coming back again and again, and that's what counts.  I love a chef who's confident enough to use very few ingredients in a dish. Florence Knight does this with dish after dish and flavours sing out with clarity.  It's an admirably short seasonal menu of 11 savoury dishes ranging from £2.50-12, 4 sides £3.50-4, and 5 desserts £3.50-7.

A plate of off-menu crunchy Camone tomatoes dressed with a little olive oil was served for the sheer joy of having such wonderful fruits in the kitchen.  Cavolo nero with anchovy and burnt bread turned out to be young leaves of raw black cabbage given the caesar salad treatment.  Despite the fact I grow cavolo nero I'd never even thought of eating it raw, but I will now.  The little croutons were, thankfully, far from burnt but crisp airy pillows of loveliness.  Sweet mussels came with cannellini beans and three-cornered garlic, the flavours heightened with mild chilli rather than the savage punch of heat all too often delivered.

Scallops, cauliflower, lardo
at Polpetto

Perfectly caramelised scallops were on cauliflower two ways - pureed and roasted - and draped with wafer thin slices of luscious lardo.  It was a dish of so much promise I could barely wait for the plate to hit the bar before tasting it.  It did not disappoint.  Hare pappardelle was a deep-flavoured, gamey dish which slipped down far too easily.  Veal cheeks came cooked in white wine with slices of fennel.  The meat's gelatinous quality had melted deliciously into the sauce leaving soft, tender cushions of meat.  So far, so uncritical but there was a minor flaw in the form of a side dish of Wet Polenta.  In my mind's eye I ordered it thinking it was going to complement the veal saucing in much the same way as a buttery mashed potato does for an English stew.  It was too stiff to work as I had hoped, but that's a minor point.

Maple tart
at Polpetto

A slice of Maple tart  was a divine, caramelic, custard of perfect wobbliness and a glass of Royal Tokaji paired with it very nicely.

Creamy Polpo house Prosecco and Corvina were good value choices out of a list of wines ranging from House at £18 to £83 for a Barolo 'Brunate' Marcarini 'La Morra' 2008, most also available by 25cl or 50cl carafe.

Anyone who has eaten at Russell Norman's restaurants before will expect attention to detail so no surprise that it's here in spades.  It's a nice space - 70 covers I think, though it feels more intimate.  The basement has four tables.  True they're on route to the loos but on the opposite side of the room you have the theatre of a great kitchen. I certainly won't be turning my nose up if offered one.

Dishes like Burrata, agretti and chilli; Bacon chop, whitty pear butter and walnuts; Milk pudding, rhubarb and rose, will all have to wait for another time.  And there will be lots of other times.

11 Berwick Street
020 7439 8627

Thursday, 4 April 2013

40 Maltby Street, Bermondsey, London

Wild Mushroom Tart

at 40 Maltby Street

The dish pictured above wouldn't be out of place in a top restaurant. However, I ate it in an unpretentious wine bar resounding to the rumbling of trains overhead.  Menus are chalked on boards.  Paper napkins come from a dispenser. Perching stools line the bar and bare tables on a painted concrete floor.  The railway arch is given character by an original unframed Harry Darby artwork or two.  Hardly star-making surroundings.  Just a place where all the attention is on the food and wine - and there just happens to be a Michelin-starred chef in the kitchen.

Chef Steve Williams has a CV which includes The Square, The Ledbury, and The Anchor and Hope and earned his star at The Harwood Arms in 2011, making it the first Michelin starred pub in London. Leaving in 2012 to travel and cook, Williams spent a few months contentedly foraging and cooking at Harry Lester's Auberge du Chassignolle, deep in the Auvergne.  Happily for me, he's now back in London cooking at my favourite bar, 40 Maltby Street, making customers very happy.

It's almost 2 years since I first wrote about 40 Maltby Street.  Back then it was simply a Friday night dinner venue which served to showcase Gergovie Wines, albeit with a great chef, Dave Cook, in the small kitchen off the bar.  It's grown up a bit since then and, I have to say, has matured nicely.  Any place that has managed to attract people at least once a week - I promise you I'm not the only one - for 2 years is certainly deserving of a second review in my book.

at 40 Maltby Street
40 Maltby Street is co-owned by Raef Hodgson and Harry Lester.  Back at its birth, a run of trestle tables was set up to accommodate around 40 people. Dishes were served in en famille fashion and were based around, say, a whole lamb or two and whatever else was in season.  It was a good formula, albeit one where you had to be open to trying something you might not have been offered before - lamb's pluck is not for everyone!

Roast Pork
 at 40 Maltby Street
Things moved on and now you can eat at 40 Maltby Street Wednesday to Saturday (see below).  This has allowed them to have a far broader menu.  Dave Cook returned to his native Australia last Summer, making way for Steve Williams. He has gradually changed the menu to his own style and dishes are a broad mix to complement the wines. Working alongside him is Kit Hodgson who specialises in pastry and serves up unmissable pies and puddings.

Apart from being sure the food will be seasonal and impeccably sourced, you can never predict what dishes will be chalked on the blackboard.  Possibly a broth; maybe chicken with wild garlic; or lamb with barley and greens; sometimes a Venison or Mock Squab pie or an Onion tart with Lancashire cheese.  Often there's a roast and, maybe, a salt-baked fish.   There could be Egg mayonnaise,  Leek and mussel gratin, Brandade in crispy potato skins, Croquettes, Mushroom tart or Anchovies, kohlrabi and mint.  There are always British cheeses, terrines or a plate of charcuterie, and almost always a baked ham on the counter.  Last Saturday a simple-looking dish of broccoli, soft-boiled egg and hollandaise sauce with toasted almonds was made outstanding by the use of brown butter and sweet-sour Moscatel vinegar.  Pearly flakes of perfectly cooked pollock came with buttery, soft leeks dressed with bacon and chervil, the necessary crunch provided by roast potato.

Seasonal puddings could be Prune and Lemon or, maybe, Damson soufflé, Apple pie fritters, Eve's Pudding, Steamed Treacle sponge with custard, Frangipane tarts, Lemon Posset.  I could go on, but I'll spare you the torture.  I'm shocked to find I have no recent photos of the puddings.  Clearly I just couldn't wait to tuck in.  There's usually a number of meat and fish-free dishes.  Everything is made in the small open kitchen with skill, passion and generosity.

at 40 Maltby Street
If you can resist the food, you can just pop in for a glass of wine.  40 Maltby Street is one of a small number of bars and restaurants in London who are introducing a new generation of natural winemakers from the South-East France/ Northern Italy/Slovenia/Spain wine-growing areas.  Employing ethical methods of growing, some organically or biodynamically, with little intervention in the development of the wine, produces interesting and surprising results.  The yield from these growers is small, hence the labels on offer at 40 Maltby Street are ever-changing as they find more good, artisan winemakers.  Some can be challenging but I can honestly say there has only been one glass I really didn't enjoy at all.  There are always a few bottles open for drinking by the glass and a wider range to enjoy by the bottle. You can also buy to take away.  My favourites have to be Tete de Bulle from the Auvergne, anything from Italian winemaker Davide Spillare, a glass of Rosso die Muni from the Veneto and Pacina Rosa from Tuscany.  Mark-ups are transparent and remarkably low.

40 Maltby Street draws a diverse crowd from off-duty chefs, through arts and media folk to local residents.  Housed in a railway arch beneath the London Bridge to Dover line, it is about a 10-minute walk east of London Bridge Station.  It's a wine bar with food so don't expect fancy service, though it is always professional.  What you will get is a warm welcome, great wines and food worthy of a Michelin star, all in simple surroundings.  It makes me very happy every week.

40 Maltby Street
London SE1 3PA
Open: Wednesday and Thursday 5.30-10pm
Friday  12.30-2pm and 5.30-10pm
Saturday 11am-5pm
(No resercvations)

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Honey & Co London - Food from the Middle East

Honey & Co London

Cakes of the day

I had intended waiting until after I'd tried dinner at Honey & Co but one lunch and a breakfast has told me all I need to know.  This is more than just "food from the Middle East", it's nothing short of manna.

You could easily walk past this tiny little Fitzrovia cafe - at least you could if you happen to pass by before they've set out their window display.  Without that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's just another quick lunch place on a sidestreet off Tottenham Court Road.  I know I did.  Then one day I joined the ranks of the pavement stumblers, wide-eyed and disbelieving at the sheer beauty of it.  I was in.

I was going to say if you like Ottolenghi you'll like this, but actually it's quite different.  What it does have in common are its Middle Eastern roots and that owner Sarit Packer has worked at, amongst other places, Ottolenghi and Nopi.  Husband and co-owner, Itamar Srulovich, trained and worked in Tel Aviv.  Walk in and, along with the fantastic aromas of Middle Eastern spices and baking, you get an immediate warm welcome from Rachel and Holly, front-of-house.  You'll be fed well and with generosity.

The breakfast menu is light on savoury dishes.  On our visit there was Ijje (a featherlight herb and feta frittata) served with plump kalamata olives, tomatoes and sour cream and two kinds of lahma (spiced lamb, tahini, pine nuts and one with Spinach, herb, egg).  Add to this a dish of yoghurt, fresh fruit and Ashura cereal, Milk bun with butter and jam, Blueberry and sour cream baked doughnuts and plate after plate of those aforementioned cakes. You will be spoilt for choice and I haven't yet mentioned the two we ordered.  If you try just one thing make it the Toasted fig, walnut and orange loaf served with butter and home-made marmalade. Rendered toffeed and chewy by the toasting, it is sensational.  If you can manage something else then I'd go for the Fitzrovia Bun.  Oh, yes - move over Chelsea Bun.  This version contains sour cherries and pistachios and has spoilt me forever for that doughy, sticky fruit bun.  One of each plus a slice of Ijje, a pot of tea and two coffees came in at a very reasonable £16 for breakfast for two, excluding tip.

A luncthime visit offered a Mezze plate for the table at £5 per person; Jerusalem style falafel with cinnamon and sesame seeds and a tahini sauce £6; Chopped chicken liver flavoured with cumin & lemon served with radish and milk bread £6; and Fennel salad, blood orange, olives and feta £6/£10.50.  For mains there were dishes such as Gundi sabzi (Persian chicken dumplings in herb broth £12.50; Ox cheek sofrito with quince served on white rice £13.50; and Siniya (roasted cauliflower, with a tahini topping, pistachios and pitta £12.50.

Honey & Co London
Fitzrovia Buns
A large portion of Marinated violet aubergine, tahini and poached Legbar egg with crispy pitta £10.50 was fresh and moreish, and Creamy hummus topped with spiced lamb and pine nuts served with pitta bread £11.50 was beautifully spiced, of great texture and deeply comforting.  With a portion of stunning Chestnut cake with salted caramel sauce and vanilla cream and a gorgeous, moist Warm marzipan cake with spiced plums, one Orange & orange blossom water iced tea, a glass of red wine,  coffee and a bottomless teapot of rose and cinnamon tea the bill came to £46.50, excluding tip.

Oh, and they do takeaway too and have an ever-growing larder you can buy from.  I think you should realise by now I can't wait to go back.  In fact I'm already booked for dinner.

Honey & Co
25a Warren Street
Tel: 020 7388 6175
Kitchen open all day Tues-Sat until 10.30pm
Closed Sunday
Monday closes 18.00
(You really need to book for lunch and dinner and at busy times it is a squeeze)

May 2012

Rochelle Canteen

I've just been told Tim Hayward has a review of Rochelle Canteen out today.  Damn the man's eyes, he writes like a dream!  Well, here goes anyway.  I really don't know why it took me so long to go back to Rochelle Canteen.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact you have to go through a school door to get to it - my relationship with learning was complicated.  You buzz for entry through the 'Boys' gate to find yourself in a small, partly-lawned school yard.  Ignoring the Victorian red-brick building you follow your nose to the bike shed.  That's more like it.

The door opens straight into the small, plainly stylish dining room set for communal eating, with the kitchen off to the left.  As you can see from the photograph it's quite a small space, around 30 covers, so it's best to book ahead.  In summer, tables are set up outside amongst a few pots of herbs and the odd bike.  This is Spitalfields so don't expect fancy.  I would say it's classy.

The menu changes daily and there is a blackboard of specials.  Rochelle Canteen's food is reliably seasonal and has the knack of being just what you want to suit the weather.  Chorizo and Potato Soup matched the stop-start feeling of spring this year.  Jersey Royal potatoes, Watercress and Soft Boiled Egg acknowledged the welcome appearance of the first potato of the year and the return of the peppery cress.  We ate a generous, creamy, portion of Brandade on Toast, a perfect balance between salt cod and potato.  Poor weather has caused the Asparagus season to get off to a haphazard start so a few Essex-grown spears simply served with clarified butter and a mound of sea salt was gratefully devoured.  

Mains of Boiled Meats and Green Sauce, Wild Sea Trout, Kohlrabi & Cucumber were on offer but Pollock Chips & Tartare Sauce proved too hard to resist for one.  The fish was fresh and flaky, the batter crispy, the chips just what you hope for.  The tartare sauce alongside was a bit too punchy for the Pollock but the traditional option of malt vinegar suited better.  Lamb, Artichoke and Rocket Salad was a plentiful plate of silky, pink roast, possibly hogget, given its good flavour, with well-dressed fresh artichokes and leaves.  We never made it to pudding but could have had Merinques and Poached Rhubarb, Lemon Posset and Strawberries (presumably Gariguette), or ice-creams.  You do need a good appetite if you're going to manage three courses here.  

Rochelle Canteen is run by Melanie Arnold & Margot Henderson (wife of Fergus Henderson of the St John establishments).   The cooking is gutsy and unflashy, less full-on than at St John.  It has no drinks licence but you can take a bottle - they charge a very fair £5 corkage.  When we were there a group of wine buffs were having a whale of a time pairing wine with the food.  It was nice to see them leave the unfinished bottles on the lunch table being set up for the chefs at the end of service.  The staff care and it's a good team.

You can't help wondering, as you look out onto the schoolyard, where all the kids are.  Rochelle School was built to educate the children of The Boundary Estate which replaced the Victoran slums centred around Old Nichol Street.  Arthur Morrison drew inspiration for his book A child of the Jago from the area.  Head for the distinctive landmark of Arnold Circus with its bandstand raised high on a mound.  It's midway between trendy, neat Hoxton Square and vibrant, dishevelled Brick Lane.  There is still a school in the Circus but the main Rochelle building now houses arts and media businesses and provides exhibition spaces.  The former bike shed serves as their Canteen but there is more around.  Calvert Avenue, running off Arnold Circus is home to the lovely Leila's Shop and Cafe.  Trendy Redchurch Street is a 5 minute walk away and you can go East to Columbia Road flower market in 10.  

Now, time to read Tim Hayward's review - damn his eyes.

Rochelle Canteen
Rochelle School
Arnold Circus
E2 7ES
Tel: 020 7729 5677

Open Mon-Fri for breakfast, lunch & tea (NOT DINNER) 9am-4.30pm  
Bring your own wine - corkage is a reasonable £5. 
Around £60 for two including corkage