Sunday, 28 March 2010

Hix at Selfridges

'Hix' and 'Selfridges'. Not names I'd expect to see together. Ramsay, Peyton, Stein, Yau, Conran, Galvin, Nobu... perhaps. Many chefs seem more than willing to get into bed with big business and hotel chains, and be lured into launching franchises. But Mark Hix struck me more the Fergus Henderson (of St John) type. This is his fifth self-named restaurant, and word has it he's keen on further expansion. As a restaurant consultant and former Caprice boss, he has quietly stamped his name on dozens of menus across town over the last decade, though premises with his name above the door have so far been his own, until now.

I'd booked well ahead for Sunday lunch at Hix's Restaurant and Champagne Bar in Selfridges, expecting it to be thronged with moneyed shoppers and destination diners, but it was strangely quiet. An awkward moment followed, as the waitress seating us went to great pains to inform (persuade) us that it was normally packed out and buzzy. No matter. It was peaceful and we weren't going to be shifted in a hurry.

The Conran-designed mezzanine dining area floats above the posh handbags, providing ample eye candy for the girls, and a welcome sanctuary from the frenetic shopping floor for all (particularly the guys: I hate seeing men with tails between their legs being dragged around designer stores by their spouse, languid and glassy eyed).

Up pop the familiarly robust Hixy British classics on the menu: 'Hix Cure' salmon, oysters, fish and chips, and fancified 'wild garlic' chicken kiev. The rest of the menu, though, is rather Hix-lite, concentrating on safer Mediterranean dishes (burrata, risotto, pasta). Pressure from store management perhaps, or Hix predicting a less adventurous diner.

For what is - the staff tell me - a walk-in restaurant, this place ain't cheap. Starters average £10, mains range from £14-40, and desserts are all priced at £6.75. Add water, wine, and service, and you've easily spent £50 each.

Tasty, though. All the dishes were well executed, served in typically pared-down Hix style.

Maldon Rock oysters (above), came topped with a zingy tomato granita. The granita wasn't on the menu, so purists may have objected, but Jon's no purist. He loved them.

Onion tart. Just the right temperature, beautifully soft onions, and crispy pastry.

LinkBurrata on toasted sourdough. Oh, I love this cheese, a yielding luscious Puglian buffalo mozzarella, enriched with cream. I last indulged in it at Skye Gyngell's Petersham Nurseries cafe, where it had been paired with salty ham and wet figs. A date-night dish if ever there was one.

Purple sprouting broccoli with Berkswell cheese and pickled walnuts. £9.25! No matter how good it was, that price can't be justified.

Cornish lamb cutlets with 'roasted cucumber salad' and watercress £19.50. The lamb was cooked beautifully, its flesh charred and meltingly tender. But the cucumber was raw. Shame. The lack of any further cooked element to the dish made it a touch too light for my taste.

Steak tartare £15.75, with chips. Gorgeous.

Chicken kiev with wild garlic £16.75. Another winner. (Hands back, Matt.)

Linguine with red sea prawns and chilli £14.50. Creamy, delicate, soothing and polished off happily by my companion, washed down with a glass of refreshing Côteaux de Peyriac.

Pink Fir Apple potatoes £3.95.

Citrus salad with yogurt sorbet £6.75. Sprinkled with caramelized peel, a refreshing dessert with a touch of indulgence.

Treacle sponge pudding with custard £6.75. For the chaps. This was the star pudding, a standout textbook example of perfect sticky syrupy sponge.

Rhubarb and ginger jelly with Jersey cream £6.75. I was mocked for ordering 'baby food', and although the flavours hit all the right notes, I admit something of a firmer texture would have been appreciated - maybe a piece of shortbread, or an oaty biscuit.

I adored this elegant tea gadget. Strainer and drip bowl in one. I never used to take much notice of trinkets, I must be getting old...

For a proper Hix experience, I wouldn't make a bee-line for this outpost. It's well-judged for its location, however, and I would definitely return for champagne and oysters, or an indulgent pudding, if we were feeling flush. There's just something odd about sitting through 3 courses in a windowless department store.

Only bother booking ahead for Saturday lunch.

Hix Restaurant & Champagne Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, 12 March 2010

Bar Shu

For some, spicy food is considered an endurance test, but for many it's an awakening, a base pleasure to be sought in as many forms as possible, be it a simple extra grind of pepper over weeknight cheese on toast, a chilli-infested broth, or a fiery Saturday night curry.

I adore heat. A grind of pepper is as important as a pinch of salt, and chilli flakes are always close to hand. About time, then, that I try out a Sichuanese restaurant.

Bar Shu sits at the corner of Frith Street in Soho, on the edge of Chinatown. It opened - to much excitement and high praise in foodie circles - in 2006, and boasts a renowned food writer as its consultant: Fuchsia Dunlop, an Oxbridge-educated cook, fluent in Mandarin, educated and initiated in Sichuanese cuisine in Chengdu, China. Being the only Western woman who knows her Sichuan stuff and writes about it prolifically and well, it seemed we were in safe hands.

Marched rather brusquely by front-of-house to the table where friends had already been seated, on the first floor, I had little time to take in the surroundings, though I remember recalling Bam-Bou on Percy Street, similarly decked out as it is, tea-house style, with ample carved dark wood furnishings.

The laminated menu was luridly eye-catching, filled with gaudy photographs of each dish. Pitched as a catch-all collection of authentic dishes, the choice was overwhelming. Spice is a given though, as is a generous selection of offal.

The region's signature spice, Sichuan pepper, features in almost every dish. A pod, not a chilli pepper, it's Grade A, high definition spice. Not for the faint-hearted, it numbs the lips, momentarily anesthetizes the palate, then smothers the mouth with a warm pungent fiery glow. Heat-lover heaven.

So, we went for a selection of cold starters (they're all chilled), a plate of offal, a plate of veg, and two meat dishes.

The "smacked cucumbers" starter was a winner: Cucumber whacked with a cleaver, like a coconut, so it breaks open into generous chunks, pickled in a fragrant sour dressing. I've recently become a fan of cooked cucumber, and vastly prefer it cooked/pickled over fresh.

Dry-fried green beans £8.90. I was informed by one of my companions, who has spent time studying in China, that this dish is made from yard-long beans, and that the secret to their moreishness is the tiny specks of minced spiced pork it is stir-fried with. Life as a vegetarian in China must be tough...

Fish-fragrant aubergine £8.90. Expensive for a plate of cold aubergine, I thought, but the slimy, slithery chunks were divine. Sweet and sour, in equal intensity.

Slivered pig's tripe in chilli oil £6.90. One of my fellow diners' favourites. It sounds distinctly unappetizing, and I can't promise I would have chosen it if not cajoled. The cold tripe slivers do indeed sit in a pool of oil, but the intense savoury "umami" combination of spice, sugar, and oil, is addictive. I couldn't identify any flavour of tripe, though, to my quiet relief.

Gong Bao chicken with peanuts £10.90. A Sichuan classic, this one packed a punch. Crammed with peanuts, the Sichuan peppercorns pervaded the dish, packed into every sticky crevice. Again, a touch of the expensive side, but given I took home the leftovers and they kept me going for two more meals, I can hardly complain.

Bar shu red braising pork £10.90. This was good, but not outstanding. I adore fatty belly pork, but this meat was perhaps not top quality. The flesh was amazingly a touch dry (sitting in liquid, surrounded by fat, you'd think this would be hard to achieve). Perhaps one to give a miss, next time.

Numbing and hot sliced beef £8.90. Wonderfully spiced, but again, I would just question the quality of the meat. It resembled the thin slices of overcooked beef you find languishing under heat lamps in a chain pub carvery.

I was impressed by the flavours and execution at Bar Shan, but the meat - I have a sneaking suspicion that this is where they cut corners. This meal was not cheap: we spent £35 a head, and two of us weren't on the booze. At that price, meat quality should not be questionnable. I hear Mark Hix likes Gourmet San on Bethnal Green Road, a recommendation definitely worth following up.

'Chinese' food in the capital is most often Cantonese, 'Indian' most often Bangladeshi, and all largely offer a one-dimensional spice fix. Try Bar Shu: it's a unique culinary experience. If it was a touch more keenly priced, and stepped up on meat quality, it would be worth a pilgrimage, not just a bus ride.
Bar Shu on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Galvin Café de Luxe

The City now has its gastronomic jewel, if we are to believe current musings and schmoozings from the nation's well-regarded food critics. They have been waxing lyrical about the latest venture from those darlings of the restaurant trade, Chris and Jeff Galvin - Galvin La Chapelle near Spitalfields Market. Giles Coren's even planning to host his forthcoming wedding reception there, in the breathtakingly beautiful converted chapel space. Lucky chap. I'm guessing you have to be in with the brothers to pull that one off.

As the picture suggests, we dined not in the hallowed halls of fine dining, but 'round the back', in the casual French bistro/bar attached to the chapel, aptly named Galvin Café de Luxe (taking the 'de Luxe' name from the first Galvin establishment: Bistro de Luxe, on Baker St).

The Galvin team obviously put a lot of thought into the interior: the lighting, bar area, table settings, even the toilets (Ren products galore), are all high spec, creating an intimate yet lavish setting. The menu is textbook robust French with a touch of Neapolitan influence, and immediately reminded me of the more rough-and-ready Comptoir Gascon in Smithfield, featuring classics such as duck confit, pissaladière, steak tartare, escargots, and rhum baba.

Seeing a fellow diner poring over their precious 2nd issue of Fire & Knives magazine - a new quarterly, dedicated to food writing - was the first sign we were on to a good thing, then a basket of decent bread arrived, as did Tracey Emin, who sat quietly at the next table, to our surprise (I had expected her to be a loud, gregarious character, one of those larger-than-life gesticulators).

The meaty mains are at top-end bistro prices - all around £15. Preferring to graze, we chose the Endive salad with blood orange, olives, buffalo mozzarella and speck (on the side, so my vegetarian friend and I could share), and two Pissaladières with rocket garnish from the kitchen's wood oven. The crisp and chewy pissaladière crust was topped with perfectly balanced caramelized onion and salty anchovies, and the perky salad was dressed delicately. Both dishes, at around £7 each, were served in generous portions. My Pissaladière was so large I had to ask for a doggy bag, a happy sight for Jon when he opened the fridge the next morning.

Just two small criticisms: they could offer more from their wood oven, as the menu currently features only four options, and their tables could be a touch bigger - my clumsiness saw various items dropping to the floor, though they were graciously and speedily replaced by the smart and ever-so-slightly stiff waiters (owing to the proximity of the chapel, perhaps).

We shared a slice of Prune and walnut tart with vanilla ice cream (£5.50) to finish. Rich and treacly, with the gooey and satisfying texture of pecan pie, and boozy prunes, it compared favourably to the River Cafe's famous Prune and almond tart that I'd eaten the week before, and was considerably cheaper. Bistros, cafés and brasseries tend to suffer from lack of imagination when it comes to the closing credits of a menu, making do with familiar fare, but the Galvin brothers put the effort in and come up trumps.

Somehow, we managed to get away with spending just £15 each on dinner, though if you're going to delve into the impressive wine menu, and gorge on 3 courses, you'll be looking at a more hefty bill of £30-4o per person. Not café prices, indeed, but to get a taste of what next door has to offer, it's worth the price. We managed to get a glimpse of La Chapelle, chaperoned by a waiter who told us that weekdays get booked up far in advance, but weekends are much quieter: a tip for those of you keen to get in quick.

Hallelujah. The arrival of La Chapelle, and its casual offshoot, signals all is well on London's food map. They are keeping standards and expectations high, and pretenders/competitors on their toes. Now, I just need to muscle in on that wedding reception...

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Langham: Afternoon Tea

Tea, cake, cake, cake...and more cake. Such are the habits of a very pregnant me, and I was about to have my first 'posh afternoon tea' experience.

Afternoon, or 'high', tea at London's fancy hotels has been a tradition amongst the social elite for hundreds of years. Nothing could be more British, so they are often tourist traps, but Londoners have recently starting succumbing the charms and pleasures of wiling away an afternoon indulging themselves in elegant surroundings, particularly given the current cupcake craze. But, all this comes with a hefty price tag.

Most five-star hotels in London offer afternoon tea menus, and all range from £20-50 per person. We were keen on Claridges, Bea's of Bloomsbury, Sketch, The Orangery, The Dorchester, or The Wolseley (all of which have stellar reputations for their finger food), but alas they were fully booked. The only place we could find an availability at 2-weeks notice was The Langham Hotel. Five minutes from Oxford Circus, at the top end of Regent Street, it is one of the oldest and largest hotels in London. I'd heard very little about it, so arrived with no preconceptions or bias.

The entrance is undoubtedly impressive, in a grand old-fashioned way. The scent of flowers was strong enough to send me giddy. Immediately accessible from the lobby is the elegant Palm Court, but it was the empty Artesian Dining Room we were destined for, as the Palm Court was full. It remained empty for the 4 hours we were there.

We chose the 'Wonderland' menu at £35 per person: 5 types of finger sandwich, 5 cakes/pastries, and scones. Unfortunately the restaurant waiter was unfamiliar with the tea menu, so the 'tea sommelier' was non existent, and hence our tea choices were pedestrian: the Langham Blend, and a delicate Chinese tea. I'll keep it brief on the food:

The scones were dense, dry, and dull. Over 4 hours, three of us didn't manage to polish off the basket you see below. And we have impressive appetites. Warming them up before bringing them to the table might have helped, a bit.

The sandwiches were also mediocre. The cucumber sandwich needed more delicate slices of cucumber, and a grind of pepper. The smoked salmon was very 'M&S', and the beef and mustard was tough (no sign of the advertised watercress, which could have livened it up a bit). The only sandwich that worked was egg and cress. Not hard to get right, that one.

The cakes and pastries were also mediocre, particularly the 'Langham Cupcake' (below), which committed the mortal sin of looking impressive and tasting anything but, as cupcakes so often do. The cake was dry, the icing just whipped butter. A let-down and confusion for the senses.

The whole menu lacked finesse, and was instantly forgettable. It was a wonderful afternoon, despite the food, not because of it. Let me know where you've had wonderful afternoon tea, and I'll be there in a shot: I'm not giving up on the concept just yet.
Palm Court at the Langham on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 4 March 2010

At Home: Chocolate Brownies

A recipe torn from an old Evening Standard magazine resurfaces every now and again, always at serendipitous moments: an easy, brownie-style tray bake that never fails to please. Credited to Ed Baines, though not published in a cookbook as far as I'm aware, it's your basic brownie recipe, with a few extras that can be left out/modified - blackberries, milk choc bits, and walnuts (I prefer pecans, and often leave out milk choc). The blackberries are key. Stirred into the mixture, or pushed into the top, they add bursts of tart, intense sweetness to the soft yielding cake. You also get a satisfyingly crunchy crust, a must for any brownie aficionado.
  • If you want them to look more delicate and dainty, bake the mixture in individual tart/muffin tins, with a fat berry on top of each.
  • I like serving them in small bite-size squares, piled on a serving plate with a bowl of thick cream in the middle to dip them in to.
  • They freeze well, for up to 2 months (but you'll lose that crunchy top).

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The River Café

This venerable Michelin-star institution has been on my London hit-list for over 7 years. Something has always stopped me booking: the prohibitive expense, the location (we rarely venture West, unless coerced) perhaps. The sniff of a bargain, though, is hard to ignore. Fiona Beckett's recent tweet, telling her followers about The River Café's Winter Set Lunch deal, made me bite the bullet.

The car-park approach doesn't quite ooze the glamour I associate with The River Café's lauded reputation. Riverfront access is closed until early summer 2010 due to ongoing flood reinforcement work, so gone is the view, and the salubrious approach. The warehouse-style building shares its site with the architect firm run by Richard Rogers (husband of Ruth, co-founder of the restaurant), though hardly resembles its original incarnation as a staff canteen. Flooded with light, overlooking a landscaped Thames-side courtyard, the long dining room is minimalist-smart, separated from the open kitchen by an enormous wood-fired oven, installed in a 2008 post-fire refit.
Our visit coincided with the sad passing of Rose Gray, one half of the formidable culinary pair that opened the café in the '80's and have been educating us ever since, spawning talented young chefs (the ubiquitous Jamie O and Hugh FW being two) and encouraging home cooks to connect flavour with provenance, and have a go at recreating simple Italian food in their own kitchens.

And that it is. Simple, peasant-style Italian raised to Michelin-star level by the supreme quality of ingredients (all flown in specially from Italy, so don't ask them about food miles), and kitchen mastery.

The calm, serene space was filled with a moneyed crowd: no one on 1-hour lunch breaks around here, just ladies who lunch, and the last remnants of London's expense-account brigade. So, it was left to us to balk at the a la carte prices (around £14 for antipasti/primi, and £30 for secondi). At a far more reasonable £24 for three courses (2 courses £18, 3 + dolci £32), the Winter Set Lunch menu offered generous choice, inspiration, and a clutch of classics.
Three crostini of smashed cannellini beans, chicken livers and cavolo nero were delightful, I thought, though Jon made a fair point: only the chicken livers managed to stand up to the strong charred flavour of the oven-toasted bread, the beans and cavolo nero being more delicate and thus a touch overwhelmed.
My Orrichiette with Romanesco, anchovy, chilli, cream and pecorino (I was desperate to try the homemade pasta) was moreish, buttery, and soft. A perfect rendition of deceptively simple pasta - I fooled myself into thinking I could whip it up at home, but on reflection think I'll leave it to the experts!
Being predictable souls, we both chose the same secondi - Faraona al forno: wood-roasted, spatchcocked guinea fowl stuffed with thyme, lemon zest, Prosciutto and mascarpone with Castelluccio lentils and red leaves. This is where the wood-fired oven comes into its own, crisping the skin, and enhancing the herb aromatics with a light smoky edge. The deep earthiness was lent a piquant note by a thrilling, zesty gremolata.

Not yet sated, we finished with Prune and almond tart, and Blood orange sorbet. The tart was the best almond tart I have ever eaten: light and crunchy macaroon-y top, and a delicate filling studded with juicy whole prunes.
The vivid blood orange sorbet, made with fruit flown in from Sicily, was a stunner. Just the right balance of sweet/tart, rounding off a memorable meal.
The service? Lovely. I'll steal AA Gill's words, as he puts it so much better than I ever would: "The River Caff has the most pulchritudinous and elegantly friendly waiters in London. It’s not unusual for middle-aged customers of either sex to fancy the staff of either sex; but the River Café is the only place where every time I come here, I’m convinced that all the staff really fancy me."

This sexed-up rustic Italian food is insanely expensive for what are ultimately simple dishes, but simple can also be special (Petersham Nurseries springs to mind), so it's no wonder people happily pay for consistently fabulous food. I'll go back and pay full whack next time, without a grumble.