Monday, 19 March 2012

Railroad


I've been meaning to check out Railroad for months. Stevie Parle, who runs the critically acclaimed Dock Kitchen in Ladbroke Grove, writes the Daily Telegraph's food column and has written a rather wonderful cookbook, mentioned his sister Lizzie's East London cafe last autumn on Twitter. It sounded like a little jewel, a food- and coffee-lover's sanctuary in the dirt end of Hackney. And if her culinary inquisitiveness was anything like her brother's, I was in for a treat.

Morning Lane sounds promising, and unless you've trodden down Hackney's backstreets before you might be expecting a sunny stroll down a cute cobbled street. In fact, it's a mean old dirty thoroughfare, blessed only by this bright young cafe, thronged with Hackney local 20-somethings, sitting at communal benches sipping flat whites.

An auspicious start: the coffee. Square Mile coffee, roasted in Hackney and brewed to perfection at a mammoth machine that takes up the whole of the service counter. It was sweet, rich and tangy with no bitter aftertaste, and served in beautiful handcrafted cups made by the proprietor's mother.


First to come from the tiny kitchen was their take on the Vietnamese banh mi, a sandwich stuffed with spicy minced pork, coriander and pickled vegetables. A steal at £4.50 but perhaps a little too much bread; it took jaws of steel to crack through the crust.


The menu, scribbled on a white board, changes daily. They serve dinner, too: more substantial offerings such as slow-cooked pork shoulder, roast partridge with lentils and roasted vegetables with farro and salsa verde. Moro instantly springs to mind.

Braised fennel with spring garlic and chilli on toast. £6.50. Soft, sweet and unctuous. Comfort food that would happily convert me to vegetarianism (well, not quite).

This cauliflower, coriander and yoghurt soup (£4.50) deserves a special mention. It was sensational - earthy, spicy and creamy, with pleasing lumps of just al dente cauliflower running through it.

On offer for the sweet-toothed among us is a small but perfectly formed range of patisserie from Yeast Bakery, an artisan bakery near London Fields. The banana cake (made on site) was spectacular.

As if the imaginative food wasn't enough, there is a short but well-compiled wine list, local and NZ beers, a ‘bookcase’ bookshop and a basement that hosts poetry readings and live music.

This is special little place, with a big heart and a warm welcome.

RAILROAD CAFE
120-122 Morning Lane
Hackney
London E9 6LH

Tel: 02089852858


Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Modern Pantry: Part 2

A brief update on The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell, which I bored you all about nearly three years ago (see last post). I loved it then, and love it still. Anna Hansen, made an MBE last year for her services to the restaurant industry, continues to cook lively and imaginative food. The standout dishes remain the light ethereal compositions, where the delicate flavours and spices she favours are not muddied by fat or carbohydrates. This scallop sashimi with cress and yuzu dressing was outstanding.


The cinder toffee ice cream is unbeatable, particularly when doused with a shot of dark espresso to make affogato, my desert island dessert.

The Modern Pantry is offering a set lunch for £20 at the moment. It might not be the trendiest place in town right now, and Bistro Bruno Loubet is flexing its Gallic muscles next door, but I promise you it's worth a punt.

Modern Pantry on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Fino

I expected a lot from Fino. After all, its cooler sibling - Barrafina in Soho - has people queuing day in and day out to prop up at the bar for a culinary trip around Spain (in particular, Barcelona, home to Cal Pep which Sam and Eddie Hart allegedly modelled Barrafina on).

First impressions aren't great. Who wants to sit in a dark sombre, and largely empty, dining room to eat tapas?

Service was effusive, and the list of sherries imaginative, but disappointment didn't stop at the setting. The tortilla (£6.80) was melt-in-the-middle. Egg yolk and butter ran out into a pool on the plate when I cut into it. Weird, and not particularly pleasant. I'd take Moro's tortilla over theirs any day, be it authentic or not. Like Cal Pep, it disappointed on the fried options too, the batter being too heavy and overwhelming. To conclude my grumbles, six tiny triangles of Manchego with a nugget of quince paste was £6.80: feeling robbed is a particularly effective appetite dampener.

Time for the good news. The spatchcocked grilled quail (£7.80) from the plancha was perfect. Moist and succulent, and perfectly seasoned.

The chips (£4.70), crisp baby artichokes (£6.80) and pan con tomate were just okay.

Our bill came to £72 for 2. Hardly cheap. I've had better meals at Salt Yard, better tapas at Moro and Opera Tavern, and if you're looking for the real deal you just have to book a flight to Barcelona and head straight for the Pinotxo bar at La Boqueria market, home to simply spectacular tapas.

Fino on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Delaunay

Sienna Miller's in the room, with her new boyfriend. Ok, that got your attention. Now, bear with me...

Manners. Old fashioned, but I can't get enough of them. A tip o' the hat might be an archaic act of courtesy - only fashion nuts, elderly gentleman and aristocrats seem to wear them these days - but the silent greeting has an air of elegance.

The doorman at The Delaunay, donning a spectacular top hat, greeted us warmly with such a gesture as we approached the imposing entrance on the corner of Drury Lane. Greetings proliferated in the decadent entrance hall, with a maître 'd, cloakroom attendant and waiter all nursing us towards our table.

The dining room is magnificent. Grand, and already at ease, even though it's only been open for a few months. The secret seems to be a combination of impeccable eye for detail (perfect light, acoustics and table spacing), the confidence of the staff and kitchen, and the buzz - it was full on a cold Monday night. The wood panelled walls and soft lighting keep it cosy, giving it the intimacy of J Sheekey, while the room's dimensions make it feel like a central European grand café. It reminds me of Barcelona's Restaurant 7 Portes, but the rough edges of its European counterparts haven't been adopted.

Fortune sat us next to Chris Corbin, eating with his family and being repeatedly harassed by his most ardent fans. He and Jeremy King own The Wolseley, The Delaunay's established sibling, and have a loyal following. His close presence is the reason I took no photos of the food, I'm afraid, and probably also explained the profuse complements I received from the sommelier when we chose the second cheapest red on the menu...

Billed as a European all-day up-market brasserie, the menu offers a hotchpotch of crowd-pleasing European classics: borscht, goulash, chopped chicken salad, liverwurst, smoked salmon, classic brunch egg dishes, caviar, oysters, tagesteller, wieners and sauerkraut, schnitzels, coupes, and patisserie.

We ate, with a carafe of Moulin de Gassac Classic 2010 Hérault (v. reasonable at £13.25):
Tarte flambée (smoked bacon and shallots) £9.75. As thin as a crisp, topped with sweet smoky bacon and meltingly soft shallots. A triumph.
Steak tartare with quail's egg and toast £10.50. This beats The Ivy's, and maybe even Bentley's. The meat was doubtlessly of good provenance, and it was perfectly seasoned.
Moules frites £13.75. Massive, endless chips. Nothing innovative, just a well done classic. And good value for its size (you could definitely share it).
Chargrilled calf's liver and bacon with mash and gravy £19.75. Again, a hit. Soft liver, chargrilled on the outside and just warm on the inside. Perfect food for a cold Monday in January.

I've haven't been able to say I love everything about a meal for a while now, but this meal was faultless.

We had no room for dessert (a first, believe me) but the selection on offer was hard to resist: cakes, tarts and ice cream coupes, including banana split, knickerbocker glory, they call it a Kinder, and a Lucian (hazelnut, almond and pistachio ice creams with whipped cream and butterscotch sauce), named after Lucian Freud, a past devotee of the Wolseley.

The crowd is fascinating: a theatrical mix of drunk lawyers and larger than life characters from the West End, old boys and posh girls, and a fair fistful of celebs. The service is carefully practiced and beautifully performed.

Our bill came to £117.28 for two, including service, two glasses of Pommery, and some pricey side dishes. For a cover charge of £2 per person, you get some rather good little French baguettes, so you could easily eat a few wieners with a glass of wine and get out with change from £20.

All wines from the reasonable wine list are available by glass, carafe, or bottle.

Eating out is a special occasion for me these days, and this place made me feel special. It might even pip Bentley's to the post as my favourite London restaurant. Go, eat, oggle, and be merry!

NB: Corbin and King opening a French brasserie in London this summer, Brasserie Zedel.


The Delaunay on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Mishkin's

Bacon sandwich for breakfast. Not a good way to start the day of our visit to Mishkin's. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret munching through slivers of salty pig (purists, look away: it was Oscar Mayer). And, I'm not Jewish. I just couldn't face more cured meat, and this 'kind-of Jewish deli', in the heart of Covent Garden, apparently makes a historic salt beef beigel.

I've reviewed most of restaurateur extraordinaire Russell Norman's joints already, so I won't pain you by repeating myself. He's the king of London's unfussy small-plate eating and drinking joints, and has hoards of evangelical devotees who gather as much for the buzzy atmosphere as for the food.

"Keep things simple" is Norman's mantra. Modelled after New York diner-style Jewish delis, Mishkin's serves plain non-Kosher fare, done well: chicken matzo ball soup, steamed burgers, chips, chopped liver, a generous snatch of sandwiches, fried eggs and onion rings, chocolate malt, and cream sodas. Unpretentious comfort food taken to the extreme.

The staff are equally laid back, and were disarmingly welcoming to our 20-month-old boy (Norman doesn't actively welcome small people), who loved every second of our visit.

We went for (good) cauliflower & caraway slaw £5, (exceptional) fried onion rings £4, and...

Duck hash, fried egg & liquor £9. Hangover heaven.

Chickpea, spinach and ricotta balls with tomato sauce £6. This was for baby, and he adored it. 'Nuff said.

Chicken matzo ball soup £5. A bit small for my liking and a little tepid, but it was instantly soothing, the stock rich and flavourful.

OK, we didn't need this. But who needs pudding. Apple and honey blintz £6. Massive, cloyingly sweet, perfect nursery food, bursting with cinnamon and syrup, coddled by thick cream.

Next time, we'll try their famous cod cheek popcorn, and steamed burgers. These have held a nostalgic belly-busting place in our hearts since my grandfather used to take us to his local White Castle in Ohio for their steamed sliders - I'm not joking, foodistas, White Castle rocks.

Our lunch cost £46, including service. Money well spent. The food is never going to be spectacular, just reliably good. It's the atmosphere that makes it the place to go. When given the choice, I'd much rather eat good food in a fun and friendly place, than excellent food in an up-itself humourless restaurant. Norman's nailed it.

What's next in the Norman empire? I wish I knew. He is hot property in the publishing business: after a frantic bidding war, Bloomsbury has bought world rights to The Polpo Cookbook, which is coming out this spring (pre-order on Amazon).

For reservations, call 020 7240 2078 (no online booking facility).

Mishkin's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

This can't be right, I thought: a country pub serving fish and chips, local ales, and a £20 3-course set lunch...the proud owner of two Michelin stars?

But The Hand & Flowers is no ordinary gastropub (someone invent a new word for pubs with food, please):
  • The chef/patron is Tom Kerridge, who opened H&F in 2005. If you're a fan of Great British Menu, you'll have come across him. His bubbly, cheerful and gentle on-screen presence belies the nerves of steel, and indefatigable determination, he must need to run a Michelin-starred kitchen. He always struck me as too sweet a chap!
  • The a la carte menu is a great read: seasonal British food cooked inventively with classic French techniques, such as Parsley soup with smoked eel, bacon and parmesan tortellini, and Essex lamb "bun" with sweetbreads and salsa verde.
  • It's in Marlow. An impeccably turned out town in Buckinghamshire, a stone's throw from London, littered with upmarket restaurants. Marlow folk have plenty of money to spend on fine food.
It being January 'n' all, we were on a lean budget, so braved the North Circular for the £19.50 set menu. I was about to warn you that my thoughts therefore don't provide a full appraisal of the food, but in fact they are probably as fair as anyone else's. There should not be a drop in the quality of cooking or ingredients (though they'll be cheaper, of course) in a set menu.

The restaurant area takes up most of the pub floor, and is sensitively lit and furnished. Sanded bare wood tables are adorned with heavy cutlery, handsome glassware, starched napkins, and flickering candles. Sun streamed through the window at our corner table in the 'family room' (not as bad as it sounds, I promise), jolting us out of our winter blues, and the staff were warm and welcoming. A good start. Even better once I had a £6 glass of Reisling Louis Guntrum 2010 in my hand. (Well worth seeking out: it's around £9 a bottle online.)


Whitebait with marie rose sauce. This was a lovely surprise, not listed in the set menu. They were the best whitebait I've eaten. Simple, soft, delicate, and crisp, their saltiness and lightness whet our appetites.

Crown Prince Pumpkin Soup with Maple Walnut Dressing. A wave of salt knocked out my tastebuds. I objected at first, muttering about overseasoning, but two mouthfuls later, the sweet earthy pumpkin and smoky nuts and seeds burst through, reviving my tastebuds. Heavy-handedness with seasoning was overlooked, and the rich soup was happily polished off.

Bavette of Beef, served medium rare, with Roasted Onion and Mushroom Ketchup. Also known as flank steak, bavette is not a forgiving cut, but it's damn tasty (the cheapest cuts of any meat are often the tastiest - think chicken wings, pork belly). Provenance was not mentioned, but I'm pretty sure The H&F source their ingredients meticulously. The mushroom ketchup was a perfect accompaniment. Rich, yeasty, sweet sauce, a posh creamy brown sauce if you like. As were the double/triple cooked chips...

More fat than potato, granted, but they were perfectly crispy and fluffy. The perfect fat chip. The second best chip I've ever had. The best are, and probably always will be, the frites at Restaurant Les Pins in Sillans-la-Cascade, Provence.

Toasted Barley Fool with Oat Crumble and Goat's Curd Ice Cream. 'Decadent' doesn't come close. This was a big, beautiful bowl of light-as-air cream, infused with the warm malty note of barley, studded with crunchy sugary oaty bits, with refreshingly sour ice cream hiding in the bottom. Pure, heavenly indulgence. A perfectly judged combination of flavours, too.

20-month-old Charlie had Fish and Chips with Tartare Sauce, and a fair share of our food too. Scoffed the lot before I got to try it. Though it would have been better if they'd brought his meal before we'd got through starter and main.

It was an incredibly good-value indulgent meal, and I urge you to go there while the offer's still on, or splash out on the menu proper. Meanwhile, I'm saving up for the a la carte menu, and planning to make a weekend of it (the restaurant has rooms upstairs).

Hand & Flowers on Urbanspoon