Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Canteen


It's been a while since I've eaten at Canteen. What was once a refreshing change to London's restaurant scene, a trailblazer in the form of affordable back-to-basics British food, well cooked, has now become a fast-growing chain that seems to be losing its va va voom.

The Royal Festival Hall Canteen was certainly thronged with people, a happy sight on a Monday night. We started with a few drinks at the bar while we waited for a table, a hearty pint of Samuel Smith's Organic Ale, and a good value bottle of 2000 Chateau Camplazens. Safely ensconced at our table, we waited....and waited.... Our waiter was laid back to the point of horizontal (albeit with a smile, so we managed to forgive him!). Our starters of devilled kidneys on toast, purple-sprouting broccoli with hollandaise, and potted duck were pleasant, and certainly hit the spot, but were not earth shattering. Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing, however: these starters have featured on the menu for years, and you can guarantee they will taste good every time.

The main dishes were touch and go. The daily special, a beef stew, was a low point: it was more sodium soup than savoury satisfaction. My companions ate a lamb and mint pie with mash, pork belly, and chicken and chips. The pie seemed to render agreeable murmurs, and the chicken and chips did what it said on the tin. I didn't try the pork, but it looked like a good piece of meat, with crackling that could have had done with being a little crisper.

It was too late to try puddings, but at a fiver each I wish we'd given at least one a go. Next time. Anyone else had similar experiences? I'm not writing Canteen off for good, but they need to listen to their customers, and talk to their Festival Hall chefs (it's hard to make a beef stew unpleasant: all it needs is great meat, and a long, slow cook).

OK...
Now, a month later, I've revisited and saved room for dessert. Boy, how disappointing! No-frills is one thing, but this was well below par: a chocolate sundae with less than a hint of chocolate sauce, room temperature piped cream, chemical-aftertaste vanilla ice cream, and so-so brownie; stodgy steamed pudding with a split anaemic custard and negligible syrup (obviously chucked in the microwave). The mains didn't rock my world either, so I've decided to steer clear for a while. Canteen and I are parting company for the foreseeable future: more fish to fry on the London food scene!
Canteen on Urbanspoon

Friday, 17 April 2009

At home: Hey Pesto


Home at 9pm, and couldn't bear the prospect of cooking from scratch, so I bashed together these storecupboard/windowsill goodies, and had, surprisingly, a vaguely acceptable plate of pasta. Try it when you're famished and the fridge is woefully empty:

• 4 anchovies in oil
• extra virgin olive oil
• fresh parsley or basil
• clove of garlic
• 1 or 2 deseeded chillies
• 1/2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
• 1 tbsp grated Parmesan

Maybe a little lemon zest would be good, too (if I'd had any!). And walnuts make a refreshing change to pine nuts.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Riddle & Finns, Brighton


A rainy bank holiday in Brighton wasn't quite the setting we had in mind. Regretfully acknowledging fish and chips on the beach wouldn't be on the agenda, we sought out a seafood setting elsewhere. I'm not very clued up on Brighton's culinary scene, though I do try to shoehorn in lunch at Bill's Produce Store or a bite to eat at Pinxto People once in a while. Tonight, my heart was set on seafood, and Riddle & Finns seemed to fit the bill.

Riddle & Finns doesn't take bookings, so we rolled up at 8:30pm to be told there'd be an hour and a half wait. I'm no good at waiting, having many a time given up on Barrafina in Soho, and similar no-booking-policy hot spots. I'm sympathetic to their egalitarian ethos, so perhaps I simply need to re-program my eating hours to suit.

By 10:15pm we were installed on stools at a marble table, not entirely sober might I add (prosecco and beer on an empty stomach). My companion had never tasted oysters, so I convinced her to give them a try, and ordered half a dozen Oysters of the Day, Normandy natives. There's such a snobbery when it comes to the technique for consuming raw oysters - ironic given they were once considered cheap basic foodstuff. Having become a relatively expensive delicacy, all manner of fads and trends are now inflicted upon them. Personally, I like as little done to them as possible, perhaps a squeeze of lemon or a drop of Tabasco, then give them a good chew. My companion's first oyster went down reluctantly (with a grimace) so, with a happy heart, I finished them off.

With a bottle of deliciously fruity Muscadet installed at our table, we proceeded to the main course. I regret not trying one of the Light Bites/Starters, as this appeared to be the most lively and interesting part of the menu, but time wasn't on our side. It was nearing 11pm and the restaurant was starting to empty. My Goan fish curry was delicious. The soft flakes of cod and haddock were sublime, yet I wouldn't say the curry was memorable. The spices were subtle to the point of underwhelming. However, my companion's Smoked haddock fillet with champ, poached egg, prosciutto and a champagne sauce was delectable. Rich egg yolk, smoky fish, and salty ham is a winning combination, and the sauce brought all three together perfectly.

We were sharing our table with a couple who'd come down for the day from London. They were sharing the Fruits de Mer platter with fresh crab, and kindly offered us a taste. The periwinkles (sea snails) needed some coaxing out of their shells, and I can't say the flavour was worth it, but the raw razor clams were fantastic.

Returning the favour, we shared our key lime pie. We ordered one serving, yet all four of us couldn't finish it. It was incredibly sweet, and triumphantly rich. I've posted a photo of it below - jealous?


Make a bee-line for this place next time you find yourself in Brighton. The atmosphere is welcoming, the staff knowledgeable, and food carefully thought out and a pleasure to eat.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Moro


I cannot think of a finer place to pull up a stool than Moro, in Exmouth Market. Sam and Sam Clark, and their earthy and exotic Moorish food, have drawn in regulars for over 10 years. Situated in the culinary hotbed that is Clerkenwell, its consistently beautiful food doesn't just satiate, it inspires.

Once you enter past the heavy crimson curtain, you are hit by the buzz (it's always crammed), and the fragrant wafts of freshly-baked bread from the wood-fired oven. Sit at the bare wooden tables for the a la carte dishes, or up at the bar, where I have sat many an evening catching up with a friend over tapas and a cool beer, or reading a book and enjoying a chilled glass of Manzanilla. The sourdough is delivered in generous warm hunks, just asking to be smothered with the smoky babaganoush and houmous. Tapas joints have been popping up all over London over the last decade, but - in my view - nothing beats Moro for its superior quality of ingredients, serious culinary innovation, and, above all, fantastic food.

Don't leave this place of pilgrimage without ordering the classic tortilla, manchego, piquillo peppers, and Jamon Iberico.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Ivy

Has The Ivy gone downhill in the last 12 months? I hear murmurs on the foodvine that things aren't quite what they used to be, particularly on the 1st floor (used for large groups/corporate get-togethers). What a shame, or perhaps it's just not as fashionable as it was, so A-listers can move on and leave it for the rest of us to enjoy.

May '08 found me and a couple of friends wandering the back streets of Covent Garden, looking for a place to eat. With nothing to lose, we wandered through the cloakroom to the front desk and enquired. As luck would have it, the maitre d' obliged, and sat us on a large round table in the centre of the restaurant. Resisting the urge to celebrity-spot, we turned out attention to the menu. The food matched the atmosphere of the room: comforting, nostalgic dishes, set amid starched linen tablecloths, well-dressed customers, and warm surroundings. My steak tartare was executed with flair, composed of the highest quality beef fillet, and the risotto primavera was pleasingly fresh and zingy for what is so unfortunately referred to as 'nursery food'.

With its sense of occasion, The Ivy is an ideal spot for celebrations and impressing out of town-ers.

Brasserie Les Halles

A visit to NYC wouldn't be complete without dinner at Bourdain's Midtown Les Halles (Park Avenue). I'm a creature of habit, so the snails and hanger steak salad are my default setting. Mercifully free of tourists (yes, I know that sounds outlandishly snobby), the service is classic NY nonchalance, but it comes with a smile. A good value haunt.

Bocca di Lupo

I wasn't the only one to be getting excited about the Bocca di Lupo (trnsl: "mouth of the wolf") opening, particularly given its head chef Jacob Kennedy's connection to Moro, a gastronomic stalwart, and site of consistently beautiful and inspiring food.

Getting a table required nerves of steel, but we got there in the end, on a busy mid-week night. Bang in the heart of Soho, the space was buzzing and frenetic. We ate at the back (the restaurant is split into two: Spanish-style bar stool eating at the front, and rickety wooden tables squeezed together at the back).

The menu boasts local Italian cooking, from Naples and Bologna, to Puglia and Sicily, offering small starter-size plates so you can sample a selection of regional specialities. Foie gras sausage with farro and porcini, and their signature deep-fried artichoke hearts, were delectable and memorable, summoning enthusiastic murmurs with each mouthful. The bottle of Gavi was a refreshing accompaniment. An unusual dessert of Gelato al Riso (cinnamon and rice ice cream) was worth trying, but I'm not convinced. Honeycomb or coffee beans, yes, but crunchy risotto rice? I would have loved a Sicilian lemon ice, or a classic Roman scoop. But predictable and classic dishes are clearly not what Bocca di Lupo is bringing to London: and neither should it be. Its experimental twists and turns are exciting.

However, this was all sadly overshadowed by terrible service. We had to ask four times for a jug of water, and twice for the wine, and most of our dishes were forgotten, undoubtedly languishing under heat lamps until our waiter could be bothered to pick them up. We started getting a bit wound up about it, particularly when he started purposefully avoiding eye contact whilst sullenly and wordlessly dropping plates onto our table. I don't want to put anyone off, and I may well go again to give it another try (particularly as our visit was in their first fortnight of business, and it was insanely busy....). Let me know what you think.

Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

Bentley's Oyster Bar


Bentley's Oyster Bar is up there with St. John - my two favourite restaurants in London.

Corrigan has the midas touch, and didn't miss a trick when he took on Bentley's in 2005. The relaxed atmosphere of the bar and banquettes lends itself perfectly to the not-so-delicate gustatory pleasure of eating oysters, and those I've tasted here are certainly the best I've had in London (please feel free to pipe up here). The accompaniments are no surprise: a bowl of finely diced shallots in red wine vinegar, Tabasco, and lemons wrapped in muslin. The breads are homemade, but where has the rich and treacly Irish soda bread gone? The rich, warm sweetness alongside the savoury sea-water hit was a match made in heaven.

I must confess to having once chosen a meat dish here for my main: a steak tartare. I rarely order this dish, as an off-the-mark tartare can put you off for life, but I had a feeling it would be a delight, and so it was. On a par with The Ivy's. You can't go wrong with fish pie: creamy, soft fish, light and buttery mash, and the epitome of comfort eating. Ultimate decadence has to be the half lobster with chips. Divine! On my last visit I had their bouillabaisse. I'm boring myself with this endless positivity now, but this was another hit. All it needed was a bowl of hot chips (which I had to order separately).

The service is enthusiastic, if just a little disorganised. The clientelle appear to be well-heeled locals and the odd tourist: not people who'll be tightening their purse strings in the slump.

Next on the list: Corrigan's Mayfair for the controversial red wine spaghetti. Farewell Lyndsay House, you'll be sorely missed.

Bentley's on Urbanspoon

Friday, 3 April 2009

Ragam

A no-frills southern Indian restaurant, Ragam is in the shadow of the BT tower.

No romanticizing this one - it's not particularly pretty, but the food is pretty spectacular. Dosai are delicious, as are the curries and breads. You'll be satiated, with taste buds thrilled, for less than £1o each. A rare thing in London these days, and great if you crave respite from the frenetic over-subscribed trendier restaurants in town.

Terroirs

Organic wine and great Gallic food. We've waited some time for a culinary star to shine in Charing X. Admittedly a large step up from Bedford & Strand around the corner, and the flailing but wonderful Rules, the first surprise at Terroirs is the light open space (anyone remember the previous dark cavernous premises?), and the gregarious staff. My first visit comprised very little food, and far too much wine (£110 bill for two - ow), most of which we happily guzzled whilst trying not to stare at the lovely Sam and Sam Clark of Moro, who were being handed plates of delectable freebies by the chef.
Next visit, it's Gregg Wallace, holding court in the bar. I find it difficult to leave. Not star-struck - just kept in by the atmosphere and tapas-style food and exceptional charcuterie. The wine list has clearly been compiled thoughtfully, and may I mention their organic wines seem to result in zero hangover? Surely a reason for a visit in itself.

Most recent visit: my companion sliced open his thumb whilst enthusiastically cracking a Dorset crab claw which flew across the room - clearly bent on swift revenge - smacking him in the face on its way. Perhaps it was slightly mollified by our appreciation of its tender flesh, as it gave itself up in the end.

If the aged Gruyere is on the menu, snap it up. A revelation. Otherwise, boquerones and heart-stopping duck scratchings certainly won't disappoint.

Fabulous - thank you Terroirs!

And a year later, still on top form (beautiful pear and almond tart with clotted cream, pictured below). Terroirs have just opened a restaurant proper in the basement, and their website is up and running. How long before chef and partner in the business, Ed Wilson, writes a cookbook? Out next Spring, I bet.


Terroirs on Urbanspoon

Hix Oyster and Chop House

Jon's 31st birthday: our first visit to Hix Oyster and Chop House.

We started with oysters - needing a protein fix tonight. Very good, very tasty, but somehow not quite up to Bentley standards. Can't put my finger on it...
However, meat is the star of the show, and boy did they pull out the stops. We had delectable deep-fried calves' brains. Couldn't help but feel slightly nauseous when relating texture to matter, but the flavour was worth it - just think deep-fried savoury panna cotta.
Hanger steak is so under-appreciated. What's wrong with you all? It's the cheapest, but most flavoursome cut, and this unadulterated slab of flesh hit just the right note (the aioli and English mustard lent a helping hand). Did I mention it came with breaded bone marrow? I hardly noticed - the rich glutinous 'crumble' was stolen from my plate. Clearly not paying enough attention, I hate sharing!

Staff threatened to sing Jon 'Happy Birthday'. He was having none of it. So, coffee it is.

Wonderful meal, equally wonderful staff, and well worth a return visit. Enjoy.

Hix Oyster & Chop House on Urbanspoon