Thursday, 14 August 2014

lyle's, shoreditch - review

It’s been a while since a maiden trip to a restaurant has greatly surpassed what I anticipated from it. Maybe I should set expectations around the same pegging as a Friday night in Church Street Croydon KFC, so as to always guarantee feeling thoroughly impressed with my dinner. But that seems a bit cynical. Regardless, I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from lunch at Lyle’s, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was.

Not that I had set my expectations low for it, mind. It was chosen thanks to the usual social media buzz that so often dictates where I should try next, so I had an idea it might be good. But in my experience, these aren’t always to be trusted (think Chiltern Firehouse, Kurobuta). 

And I’m never quite sure what to expect from east London. I sometimes wonder if the Shoreditch creatives are simply riding the wave of their location association, facial fuzz and sockless feet, rather than truly being measured on their skill. This is really just a symptom of me being quite ignorant to this part of town and needing to get better acquainted. So, shame on me.

The man behind it is Chef James Lowe who made a name for himself as one of The Young Turks at supperclubs and pop-ups around town, and Lyle’s is his first solo foray, found in Shoreditch High Street’s Tea Building.

First impressions were mixed, leaning towards unimpressed. We had an early booking, so the whole room was empty when we arrived (it filled to full capacity shortly after). “You know what this reminds me of,” I queried my dining companion. “A prison,” came the instant and assertive response, echoing my exact thoughts.

The welcome was exemplary as was the service throughout, but to put it bluntly, the space looks like a poshed up prison canteen. I get the whole pared down, clean-lined Scandi look that so many restaurants go for these days and often execute well, but it doesn’t seem to work here. My interior designer companion - who knows her load bearing walls from her butt joints - thinks it’s the light wood beech against the bare steel of the open kitchen and the polished concrete floor. It’s a harsh look. 

Mercifully, they haven’t entertained those long communal tables otherwise I would have had to ask if this was in fact a social enterprise employing those on temporary release and did I need a CRB check before eating here. And to add to the penitentiary theme, whilst the staff were all glorious, the uniforms of dark blue trousers with tucked in light blue shirts made them look like extras from The Shawshank Redemption. 

But who really cares about any of that when what’s coming from the kitchen is this good.

I’ll start with the least striking dish, and there was one, of beetroot, walnuts and Ticklemore cheese. Order it for the cheese-name novelty, by all means. But the root veg had the same texture as the ones you can buy vac packed, and the cheese was a little too inoffensive for my palate (£7.50).

Onwards with the rest of the spread, which was all effortlessly splendid. Scottish chanterelles sat in a little pool of thin savoury broth, scattered over and concealing a gooey egg, with onions and wild fennel blossom. A spectacular umami bowl I’d scoff any time of day (£7.30).

Then there was a ‘blood cake’, essentially the glorious soft innards of a high-end black pudding, gently spiced, an exquisite texture, with a smattering of pork scratching nuggets, dark purple pickled chicory and blackcurrants. It was stellar (£6.30). 

A great hunk of Dexter rump with a beautiful crust, the flesh surrendering its juices with a little pressure, was a complete joy between the teeth. I have found myself wondering why the hell I ordered the beef whilst masticating one mouthful for a full five minutes many times before, even at high end restaurants. But not here; it was the nicest bit of bovine I’ve had in ages (£16.50).

Then there was the grouse liver, sweetcorn and hazelnuts. Despite it looking exactly like something a cleaner would throw sawdust over on Platform 4 of Leicester Square station on a Friday night, it was sensational, and not at all what I was expecting. 

A sort of liquidised liver, distinct with the unique flavour of game but not yet too strong as it was just the start of the grouse season, with crisp sweet kernels of corn and crunchy nuts. There are few things that please me more then when something reads scary and looks worse, but tastes incredible. Fortune favours the brave; always try to order at least one thing you think you won’t like - you might be just as pleasantly surprised (£5.90).

Treacle tart was a neat cuboid of sublimely spiced pleasure, with a big ginger hit and a neutral and delicate milk ice cream (£5.90). Then there were cherries with a cherry granita, crumble and an ice cream made from cherry stones (who even knew you could do such a thing), which lent some nuttiness to the dessert. It was totally great (£6.50).

A point to note, the wine list focuses on natural tipples which seems to translate to them being a bit pricier than I’m use to seeing so close to the start of the list. But there’s plenty available by the glass and carafe, so do gambol through it by all means. 

Lyle’s was a surprise and a revelation. Things aren’t quite as they seem here, but what they turn out to be are all the superior for it. There’s a sense of excitement around what you’ll get presented in front of you, as the menu gives little away and the kitchen is clearly bursting with creativity. There isn’t a better opportunity to experience this than in the evenings with their set eight course daily-changing menu that offers no freedom of choice; I bloody love being told what to eat. 

I’ve already secured my return visit for dinner. I might don some bright orange overalls.

Liked lots: kitchen innovation; exciting dishes; exemplary service from our Antipodean waitress - she was great; the no-choice evening menus - I know it's a divisive topic but I really like them (when the cooking is this good)
Liked less: those staff uniforms..
Good for: interesting Scandi-influenced dishes big on British ingredients

My rating: 4.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Lyle's on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, 12 August 2014

brasserie chavot, mayfair - review

I love a good brasserie. Particularly the ones of my mind, which play to the romantic idyll of how I envisage dining in France to be everywhere, all of the time.

In them, waiting staff in white shirts and black waistcoats glide around guests taking languorous lunches longer than the morning they spent in the office. The evenings host a convivial atmosphere with rotund diners wallowing in the digestive juices that follow rich French classics, lots of vin rouge and not quite enough l’eu du minerale. 

There should be a lot of French gesticulating and arm throwing, along with great gorgeous bowls and plates piled high with all the things you would expect to find in a good brasserie. And let’s throw in a bit of Édith Piaf on the wireless for good measure.

We’re lucky to have some good brasseries in London. Bistrot Bruno Loubet I’m yet to try, but I hear good things. Brasserie Zedel ticks a lot of the above, although I suspect it’s the very splendid setting (typical to a Corbin and King enterprise) and the competitive double-take prices that draw in the clientele more than the food. 

A great leap up from this and you’ll find Brasserie Chavot, a Mayfair restaurant only recently wandering into my London dining periphery, despite being open since March 2013 and gaining a Michelin star just a few months later.

The classic interiors are chic and elegant without feeling dated; how you might have expected Coco Chanel to design a commercial dining space if doing so were part of her repertoire. Glinting tear-drop chandeliers and intricate coving adorn the high ceilings. There’s red leather, dark wood, stately structural columns, and an open kitchen. The whole room is adjoined to the Westbury Hotel, whilst maintaining its own street entrance.

Eric Chavot – the gregarious Executive Chef with his name above the door – hails from Bordeaux in France. The back catalogue of his culinary career include stints with a host of highly acclaimed kitchens including Le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons, Michelin star-studded London-based solo ventures, and holding two stars as Head Chef of The Capital Restaurant for a laudable ten years. 

He is a chef to the core, with unbridled passion for his craft. Eric revelled in the opportunity to cook a group of us some dishes off menu, landing heavily laden wooden boards and brimming steel pots at the centre of our tables with the flamboyant gesture of a showman proud of his work. And rightly so.

The heirloom tomato salad with Parmesan and pesto was as fragrant as it was a pure pleasure to eat. There was a zippy Strasbourgeoise salad with soft potatoes, the heat of mustard and slices of sausage, as well as a dish of flaking sea bream fillets with raita. Tender octopus with the last of the summer pea and broad bean bounty was especially wonderful with the glass of Portuguese Vinho Verde "Mica". As was the acclaimed signature dish of deep fried soft shell crab with whipped aioli, the crisp and light white cutting through the fattiness of the crab; a continuation of the superb starter theme.

Then there was a fish soup with crab claws, octopus, olives, a deep burnt-orange bisque, hunks of chorizo with smoky heat, and saturated but still well textured crusts of bread. Lamb cutlets with Merguez sausages were unveiled from under the cone lid of a tagine, whilst tender pork and duck arrived with fat and creamy butter beans and exceptionally garlicky - and therefore fantastic - bread.

It all wrapped up with an impeccably boozy rum baba with chantilly cream, a lemon tart and Eric’s take on an Eton mess. And a glass of Pink Moscato; like drinking fizzy fresh raspberries. 

“This one is only 5%” Head Sommelier, Andreas, informed us as he filled our flutes with a knowing smile. It takes one of experience to recognise that dessert for this lot requires a toned down alcohol content, considering the copious glasses of Torrontéz, Crozes-Hermitage and more that went before it.

The dishes seemed to taste elevated from what you would expect based on the look and descriptions alone, which meant a stream of coo-ing from one to the next. The whole meal – food, wine and service - was a series of small thrills, which together made for a fabulous experience. And despite some dishes often associated with the heaviness of rich French food and the onset of gout, there was a lightness running throughout.

Eric and his kitchen are turning out refined yet generous and hearty plates of French abundance that feel like a glimpse into what his mamma might have cooked him. It’s not prissy and doesn’t feel contrived, yet is set in impressive surroundings at a very reasonable price point for this part of town. 

Despite the accolade, this isn’t typical Michelin fine-dining. That expression ‘cooked with love’ seems to fit here; there’s a side of Eric’s personality with every plate. And a combination like that in London feels quite special.

Liked lots: Eric's showmanship and love for his trade, opulent interiors with accessible and beautiful food, appealing price point for this part of town
Liked less: I'll get back to you..
Good for: impressing dining companions without the need to break the bank; French food that doesn't require a digestion nap after

My rating: 4.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to this restaurant.

Brasserie Chavot on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 August 2014

belmond le manoir aux quat'saisons, oxford - review

There are some restaurants that need little introduction. In the UK, in my mind, these are The Fat Duck and Le Manoir. Part of the reason for these two is because I’ve had a glimpse into both of these kitchens through TV shows; a Masterchef episode where contestants got to cook in Bray, and Raymond Blanc’s: How to Cook Well respectively, the latter of which I tuned into religiously. There’s nothing quite like seeing a restaurant’s behind-the-scenes engine room at work to make you want to eat there.

Since long before then, Le Manoir has been high on my restaurant list. I bumped into Blanc himself at London Cocktail Club a while back (he mentored the two barmen who launched it), and experienced first hand his energy and zeal as we chatted about food and cooking over a couple of pisco sours. Granted, the French accent got thicker and more indecipherable as the drinks flowed, but I more than got the jist of what was being said.

There are two other reasons Le Manoir always stood out for me. One is it’s highly commendable longevity; Les Quat’Saisons opened in 1977 and has maintained two Michelin stars for a staggering 29 years - only a handful of other restaurants can boast a similar achievement. The second, which more than appeals to me as a big advocate of growing-your-own, are the vast kitchen gardens. Seventy traditional and exotic herbs call it home, there's a two-acre plot producing over 90 types of vegetables, an orchard with pears, apples and quinces, even whole greenhouses dedicated to micro herbs. It’s top-shelf allotment pornography of the highest caliber. 

Le Manoir is as grand and stately as you expect it to be. A handsome and stylish manor that despite its size, manages to feel comfortable and familiar. What’s particularly pleasing about the whole experience - the building, food, service and atmosphere - is that it’s not at all stuffy. Despite its formidable reputation, and the level of dining you experience (with the prices to match), the haughty air you might expect with that is not present at all, which is great. 

Everyone is relaxed and at ease, with the babble of convivial chatter and laughter coming from all the tables. You’ll even find (well behaved) children amongst the guests, who are welcomed with their own menu rather than shunned. Diners are well turned out but not to the point of jackets and pearls. The room we were seated in - I believe a newer extension in the expansion a while back - was like a very smartly furnished conservatory with walls and ceilings of glass letting in lots of light and creating space. 

Service is impeccable, nay, faultless. Just the right amount of attention whilst remaining mostly invisible. There is a copy of the days menu on your table in order to negate the need for those lengthy descriptions of every course on delivery, if you don’t want it. I quite like that though, so allowed them to indulge me. 

There’s a lot of ‘madame et monsieur’ which is all fine, lay it on as thick as you like. And you don’t order at the table, you decide what you want to eat in the foyer as you peruse over the menu with your hors d'oeuvres and a glass of champagne if you’re feeling extravagant. So once you’re seated, service is a series of flowing movements by the staff with little to no questioning or interruption.

I quietly sneezed at one point. Before I could reach into my handbag for a tissue, an outstretched arm with a box of them at the end of it appeared from the side of me. Exactly what I needed the moment I needed it - I was duly impressed.

The food was very good and in terms of value, the only real option is the seven course tasting menu. There was a little salad of Devonshire crab with grapefruit, mango and celery, then a confit of cod cooked to the exact point it just turns opaque, with limpid globules of pale green olive oil jelly sliding intact across the plate, the very youngest of basil leaves, firm white cocoa beans, smoky potatoes and tiny cubes of salty chorizo.

A take on green eggs had a spinach and watercress puree, the crunch of hazelnuts and crisped-up posh Spanish ham - that was very good. Then a picture perfect plate of different parts of a piglet - shoulder, succulent slices of leg, sensational black pudding, a Catherine Wheel spiral of crisp bacon (but without the sparks), and a neat cube of scored and browned belly. With it, cabbage, spinach, green beans, apple and onion pureé - a plate full of oink and joy.

Then there was a Comté served at three stages of maturation, 12, 24 and 36 months. A gradual increase in tang and crystallised saltiness, served with a complimentary glass of Vin Jaune 2006 (for those of you who can’t recall your GCSE French, that’s ‘yellow wine’), like a dry Fino sherry. The whole course was entirely typical of Blanc’s native region in the east of France, I loved it. 

Dessert began as an espresso cup housing a mousse with tart soft raspberries and cubes of what was a sort of spongy coconut meringue, the latter of which had little flavour or point. But it was topped with a kimono silk thin disk of chocolate with a speck of gold leaf which was fun to break through with the spoon. It ended with a sensational and intensely tart blackberry sorbet with disintegrating meringue, and a violet mousseux. Oh, and a birthday candle. A triumphant plate.

My partner swapped the final course in exchange for the cheese platter (for a charge of £15), and so we revelled in the theatre of one of the most handsome cheese trolleys I’ve seen wheeled out to us, the glorious honk of all that sweating dairy assaulting our noses before it made it round the corner. The cheese man (pardon me for not knowing the correct term for this member of staff - I’m sure there is one), was great and full of love for this magnificent spread. 

What you need to know is that the portion is huge - he will put a lot of cheese onto your plate. There’s even a tub of Stilton from which quenelles of the stuff are scraped up and shaped for your pleasure. I asked him to write down the ones we had, so as to identify them and purchase next time I’m at a posh cheese counter. For your knowledge too, they were: Blue - Colston Basset Stilton and Fourme d'Ambert; goat - Charolais and Sharpham Cremet; soft and ripened - Coulommiers; washed rind - Moelleux du Revard; hard - tommette de Savoie. We couldn’t finish it between the two of us, but what we did manage was nothing short of sublime.

It was at this point we walked about the estate before retiring to the lounge for coffee. We were at Le Manoir for a total of five hours and it was a glorious, languorous, lavish lunch.

My one point, and there really is only one, is that it is expensive. It’s in fact one of the most expensive restaurants in the UK, particularly when dining from the a la carte, with starters coming in at a hefty £40. The seven course tasting menu was £125. Add to that wine and coffee, and the bill soon mounts up. 

The focus of Le Manoir is on seasonality, expertly executed dishes, impeccable service and glorious surroundings. There are restaurants in London that can tick at least three of those four criteria with some confidence, and do so at a more agreeable price point. Whilst the food was all very good, it didn’t feel overly innovative or ‘current’ for use of a better term, something you might associate with such price tags. What it does do are classic dishes that aren’t too complicated, very well. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

What’s particularly unusual, is they do not add service to the bill; Blanc’s note on the menu states they don’t want diners to feel as though they need to leave anything, but they can if they wish. I’m almost certain most do, and I do wonder if prices are a little inflated to compensate for this. 

Yes, you will pay handsomely for this dream ticket for out-of-town extravagance, as it remains the blueprint for the perfect luxury restaurant. I’m pleased I’ve ticked it off my bucket list, and I enjoyed the whole day immensely, but the price point will probably prevent me from passing through those grand gates again.

Liked lots: it's all rather faultless really; they give those active with them on Twitter a gift of a cookery book which is a nice touch
Likes less: it is pricey
Good for: very special occasions; experiencing cooking from a kitchen that has remained consistently excellent for years; a good reason to get out of London for the day

My rating: 4.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons on Urbanspoon

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Friday, 1 August 2014

JAPAN: japanese tea ceremony, kyoto

There are a number of traits us humans have that when combined, identify us as a unique species. Our ability to blush, our upright gait, our opposable thumbs, and our insatiable appetite for a good cup of tea. 

The most widely consumed beverage on the planet second only to water, tea drinking is both a quintessentially British pastime and a truly global phenomenon, with every country having their own customs. Ask for the drink in Japan and you will receive it green. Seek out a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and marvel at the elaborate rituals, precise preparation and majestic presentation that goes with it.

A fifteen minute walk from Kyoto train station, in the depths of a peaceful residential district and amongst distinctly Japanese housing, you’ll find the bamboo-fronted Joukeian residence, home to Soukou Matsumoto.

Ten years ago, Soukou was given the opportunity to introduce the tea ceremony to Swiss ceramic students who were visiting Kyoto and as a result, realised those who were not Japanese harboured a great curiosity and desire to learn about and experience traditional Japanese arts and customs. 

Soukou decided to share this experience with visitors and has been doing so for ten years. Her website however has only been up for two years, and she is keen for more people to know about what they can find at Joukeian.

Entering this small building - the threshold first sprinkled with water as part of the welcome - and making our way to the tea room overlooking a small but perfectly formed treasure of a tea garden, involved a series of sliding doors and small corridors from the waiting room. It is in the waiting room where payment is made first, the exact amount to be left in cash in the envelope provided as during a tea ceremony, tradition dictates guests and hosts should not exchange money.

As is common amongst Japanese woman, Soukou is a refined, softly-spoken character who greeted us in one of the most beautiful kimonos I came across during my time in Japan. She also has an impeccable master of the English language, providing a full explanation of the different parts of the ceremony, the significance of each utensil, and the rituals we would be following, for the first twenty minutes.

The remainder of the time involved Soukou preparing the electric green matcha during the ceremony itself. The sequence in which utensils were handled, the fluid yet strict motions of the host, the series of exits and entrances into the room, sometimes walking, sometimes shuffling across the floor on her knees, were entirely captivating.

Zen Buddhism was a primary influence in the development of the tea ceremony, and the certain spiritual meaning and the special sense of beauty of this influence is very apparent when you are actually witnessing it.

Guests are at the end presented with a bowl of the chacteristically bitter matcha, frothed up with the traditional bamboo whisk (chasen), to enjoy in the serene environment, along with an opportunity to ask any questions. It is at this point the taught atmosphere of the rituals and procedures feels slackened, and both host and guests are able to relax more. 

This was tea ceremony Course A from Soukou’s website, and from start to finish lasted for about one hour. It is private ceremony (so just your group) and costs ¥2000 per person (approximately £12/$20). She offers a handful of different experiences, ranging from the most basic we had, to even more elaborate sessions that last for up to four hours and include small meals and a series of different teas, all the details of which can be found on her website. 

As you can see photography is permitted, although the event is so bewitching and performed in such quiet, that you'll only want to sneak in a couple of shots before putting the camera to one side. Soukou is very responsive via email and is happy to answer any queries you might have.

Many places offer traditional tea ceremonies in Japan, but they are often in hotels or with large groups which I suspect detracts from the feeling of intimacy and exclusivity. I would recommend Soukou without hesitation. Some of Japan’s finest matcha can be found in Kyoto, and to experience a traditional ceremony in the dedicated and exquisite surroundings of an expert’s personal residence in this sensational city, is a unique and very memorable experience. 

Address: Sannai cho 1-24 Sennyuji Higashiyamaku Kyoto
Price: From ¥2000 (£12/$20) per person
Duration: From one hour

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

forge bar, bank - review

Bar food. Or more accurately, the food found in bars. Their prime objective to provide the grease / stodge / salt an alcohol-sodden soul so desperately craves by their fourth drink. Serving little purpose other than to negate the need for a drunken stumble to the nearest Burger King on the way home, I tend to steer clear of the food offering in bars. Because generally, it's pretty shit.

So imagine my surprise when I ate at the newly opened Forge Bar round the corner from Bank, and found it to be rather good. The site was previously Abacus; my friend and I entered with low expectations. “Abacus was a meat market for suits,” he said on the way in. “And they didn’t serve food. I hope this has a different vibe.”

I hadn’t visited Abacus (in reality I probably have, but there’s little hope in me being able to recall it), and so I couldn’t compare. But the £20m refurbishment the Late Night London Group have ploughed into this site, completely gutting it of it’s interiors and questionable reputation, has resulted in a pleasant surprise to be found in this part of town.

It’s not a meat market, and it’s not all suits. It’s a lively, sophisticated yet informal space that’s gone for bare-brick industrial chic with a much broader clientele than Abacus ever had. Yes, it does have one of those high-spec basement club areas with VIP tables that require a £500 minimum spend and sparklers when posh fizz is ordered, but feel free to avoid or only descend once the night gets really late.

I had a chat with debonaire Giles, the restaurant manager. He hails from The Jones Family Project over in Shoreditch, and injects a touch of the dapper tweed-adorned hipster (with compulsory facial hair) into a part of town that can be stiff and grey before The City starts drinking. He’s been in hospitality as long as he can remember, and is utterly charming. His passion for his industry shines, and you should visit Forge Bar to have a drink with him if nothing else.

But there are other reasons, and quite a few. The cocktails are ace. I can’t quite recall which ones I sampled (a sign they’re of commendable strength), but I do remember settling on an excellent sour, and when I asked Giles if I could please have it extra sour as I like my jaw to ache from citrus, his face lit up: ‘I know exactly what you mean - I’m the same.’ Extra sour it was, they were great, and I think I had five. So that was good.

The food. You won’t find delicate portions here: it’s big, meaty and in your face. It hits all those spots I mentioned before that need hitting alongside a few beers or cocktails, but with skill you’d be hard pressed to find at other bars in the area.

There were beef short ribs with meat that fell off the bone from a hard stare alone (£6). Skewered chicken was expertly cooked - still soft and succulent - and with peanut butter, lemongrass, coconut and green chilli (£6). The cider pork with chunky chips and vanilla and Bramley apple sauce had the most cracking crackling I’ve come across in a long time, and a belly that wasn’t fatty beyond enjoyment, which is so often the case (£13). Someone else ordered the 20oz Tomahawk steak for two, so I took a picture - I reckon it could feed a family of four for at least two days (£50). 

My advice would be come hungry or willing to share - a few of the small plates or a main between two would likely more than suffice on most occasions.

Then there’s The London Essentials. I understand these guys can be found making the rounds at a few top bars in London. They play here every Wednesday, and they’re excellent; there’s nothing that gets a vibe swinging more than live music. What’s particularly good about this acoustic act is they move around the venue with each song they play, serenading different tables and sets of people with whatever request you throw at them. They were a lot of fun and I’d want them to be there next time I visit.

Don’t be put off by the Forge Bar website. I’m not sure their content marketing is quite right with phrases like ‘a new breed of euphoria’. What it is, is a spacious bar in The City with it’s top button undone, that embraces the eclecticism of our pals further east, that does good reasonable food, great cocktails and often has live music. 

That’s almost my full checklist of a good night out. 

Liked lots: not too crowded, central location, pork belly crackling, Giles, value for money

Liked less: the menu has a focus on heavy meat - opt for the smaller plates if you're not in the mood for meat sweats
Good for: a full night out without having to eat and drink in different locations, or settle for rubbish food in order to avoid doing so; dancing like a loon to live music after a few cocktails

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to review this restaurant.

Forge Bar on Urbanspoon

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Friday, 25 July 2014

lima floral, covent garden - review

So many restaurants, so little time / money / metabolism / willing dining partners [delete as appropriate] to tackle them all. Despite my interests placing me in them many times in a week, there are a number of key players I am yet to visit: The Clove Club, Morito, River Cafe, Antidote, Pizzaro, Tayyabs - the list is longer than the one to get into Chiltern Firehouse (don’t bother) and I’ve still barely made a dent. So if, from the endless London dining offerings all vying for my attention, I choose to eat at a new opening twice within a few days of each other, the place is doing something right.

Granted, both of these visits were within Lima Floral’s soft launch period; a common undertaking for new openings where 50% or so of the food bill is removed in exchange for the grace of customers to allow them to work through teething problems often only discovered in the throes of a busy service. It also already had it’s older, smaller, Michelin-starred sister - Lima in Fitzorovia - setting the bar high when it comes to Peruvian food; my first meal there in 2012 was my maiden encounter with the cuisine, and I fell for it and the the restaurant hard.

My expectations were high. I sidled up to the monastic building of this second site on Floral Street in Covent Garden, whilst at the same time recalling the sensation of aching jaw joints from the lime-hit in their unrivalled ceviche in Fitzrovia. The juice of citrus may as well run through my veins (that’s the Turk in me), and their liberal use of it - along with expert amounts of salt and chilli and onion and quality fish - gives me unbridled pleasure. They’re consistent, and the sea bream ceviche here is of equal distinction - joyous (£10).

For something similar but not quite the same, tiradito is akin to ceviche in that it’s raw fish in a sauce, but differs in the way the fish is cut, and that the liquor is spicy and lacks onions. It demonstrates the influence of Japanese immigrants on Peruvian cookery and here sports heat from rocoto pepper and an arresting green tiger’s milk, vibrant from coriander and parsley. Also great, my only gripe being there’s not enough of it on the plate (£9).

Then there was tuna tartare with a fat caterpillar of yellow potato sporting spines of root veg (£10), and an escabeche salad with crimson slithers of beef and an algarrobo syrup (made with pods from a carob tree) which made this a little too sweet for me (£10).

Dry Andean potato stew has an adjective misnomer; it is in fact a saucy, hearty bowl of food, the golden colour of good daal, with chunks of soft salty sheep’s cheese the texture of a sweaty Brie (£7).  There was a plate covered in glossy black roasted quinoa beads - that I’m pleased they avoided marketing as ‘soil’ - with fabulous bite between the teeth, topped with an egg that could have had a runnier yolk, a yacon (tuberous root) reduction and the apparent presence of avocado, although I couldn’t detect it. Regardless, very clever texture and flavour matching (£15).

Organic lamb rump, with both blue and yellow potato (Peru boasts a rainbow of potato colours), more quinoa, filaments of crisped onions, and queso fresco demonstrated skill in both execution and presentation. A striking dish with just-right meat, and despite the most conservative drizzle of a jus, not at all dry (£22).

I rarely order fish for mains (it’s hard to ignore red meat winking from a menu), but the grilled monkfish is superb. In a tiger’s milk broth with great depth, courgette and chilli peppers settling at the bottom, and hunks of meaty flesh bobbing about, I sunk the dregs direct with a throw back of the head. Too good not to, and it had a great back-of-the-throat climbing chilli heat (£20).

All the desserts are unusual, and good. Suspiro ardiente has shards of meringue speckled with chilli, powdered pink beetroot and a little dulce de leche that should have been a lot of dulce de leche. Café Peruano, with it’s coffee ice cream, a crumbling of purple potato and red kiwicha (amaranth seed) was great - just remember not to breathe as you’re eating or you’ll have something close to the cinnamon challenge as table entertainment. 

The chocolate mousse with oats and wood sorrel was thick and decadent and a glorious texture. I tried the fourth dessert on my second visit - with chirimoya (a fruit that tastes like an amalgamation of lots of other fruits), more potato, and maca root. It was also good (all £6).

South-American superstar of the moment, chef Virgilio Martinez, sources ingredients from the UK as well as introducing diners to new and unheard of Peruvian elements, which makes a reviewer like me more thankful than usual for Wikipedia. There is a real sense of the kitchen showcasing Peru’s vast biodiversity with what is indigenous and unique there.

The website describes Lima Floral, when comparing to Lima, as “nothing better nor worse but clearly distinct and in the same spirit: dynamic, bold and in a traditional kitchen”. I think it’s spot on. Like Lima, everything looks beautiful - both the food and the interiors, with the bright Inca patterned cushions and abstract art found at both sites. The capacity at Floral is far greater, with a basement dedicated to walk-ins and a ‘piqueos bar’ serving cocktails and a completely different menu of small plates, which I must return to try.

It’s worth noting that a pisco sour is my go-to cocktail. I order them wherever I drink that has pisco behind the bar. I’m yet to find one as good as those rustled up at the two Lima’s.

Liked lots: ceviche, ceviche, ceviche

Liked less: some of the starter portions could be deemed as on the small side
Good for: the best pisco sours in town, colourful potatoes, unusual ingredients, their great value set lunch menu - three courses and a glass of house wine for £19.50 and includes Saturdays - see you there

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

Lima Floral on Urbanspoon 

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

fischer's, marylebone - review

When friends gather of an evening to address grumbling stomachs, it’s rare for one to exclaim a desire to ’go for an Austrian’. A cuisine less prevalent across London’s dining landscape, it’s the sort that whilst remaining largely unchartered, tends to evoke responses of ‘Ooh - I do love a good schnitzel.’

So, most of us have an idea of what a schnitzel is - boneless tenderised and breaded meat - and the the part of Europe the term is associated with (mittel-Europe, that is Germany, Austria and the surroundings). But I suspect that’s where a lot of our knowledge of this cuisine ends. Should you have the urge to delve deeper into Viennese café culture and what a menu in one would offer, Fischer’s in Marylebone is a good place to start.

If you’ve wandered into a Jeremy King and Chris Corbin venture before (The Wolseley, The Delaunay, Brasserie Zedel), you’ll instantly recognise the space as one of theirs; they are masters at baroque beauty, early twentieth-century glamour, bustling European-style all-day brasseries, panelled walls and big clocks. The menu partially reflects those in The Delaunay and The Wolseley - the presence of schnitzel, wursts, wieners, ice cream coupes and sachertorte are ubiquitous.

At Fischer’s though, there’s a greater delve into a specific Viennese offering. I had only recently learnt about spätzle - and more importantly, how to correctly pronounce it (shpetz-leh) - at an evening cooking with part-Austrian TV cook Rachel Khoo. You'll find them here, and they’re good. Pasta dough pushed through small holes to make little dumplings, finished in butter and with a generous amount of garlic that I more than agree with (£3 - side).

Chopped liver with sweet rounds of pickles is also very much of-that-region; a well-textured paté served with crisp bread, it’s a solid way to begin (£6.50). Beetroot and goat’s curd salad was as good as those components have capacity to be, assuming fresh and seasonal ingredients - the case here (£8.25).

Not ordering a schnitzel on my maiden visit to an Austrian café would be, I suspect, little short of sacrilege. Couple this with most of social media responding with ‘the schnitzel!’ to my pre-lunch research query of ‘what’s good at Fischer’s?’, and I’m going to order a schnitzel. 

And so it was the Holstein or nothing, a huge veal cutlet pounded tender, breaded, and plunged into hot oil, topped with a fried egg, a criss-cross of anchovies and a scattering of tight capers (£21.70). Very pleasant it was, if not hefty, even for me. With hindsight, it seems I was served the large option, and yet I don’t recall being asked which size I wanted; there is also a ‘small’ available for £12.75.

A few other service teething problems were noted. Our starters came before our glasses of champagne, then offered on the house by way of an apology. Another waitress introduced our dessert wines with “I don’t know how to pronounce these - I shouldn’t be working in an Austrian restaurant”, albeit jokingly. And there were additional hints the staff weren’t entirely au fait with the menu. I say teething problems, they’ve been open since spring.

The menu is full of umlauts that are fun to pronounce with your best Schwarzenegger drawl, my favourites being: käsekrainer (pork, garlic and emmental sausage), zwiebelrostbraten (grilled rib eye), marillenknödel (apricot dumpling with apricot compote and vanilla ice cream), and überstürzter (long espresso and belgian chocolate poured over whipped cream). 

Try saying those after a couple of glasses of Pommery, or, if you’re the waitress. There’s also an extensive choice of cured fish, salads, brötchen (rolls), sandwiches and biscuits.

For a sweet finish, there was an apple and walnut strudel which I didn’t try but my companion said was pleasant enough (£6.95). The Wien - a towering assembly of coffee and vanilla ice cream with whipped cream and espresso anglaise sitting atop chewy bits of meringue like those found in Lucky Charms - was good, if not confrontational in its challenge to clear it. ‘Finish me, I dare you’ it silently flounced upon delivery - another big portion (£5.95).

Along with the dessert wines - thankfully chosen by someone who knows a lot more about the subject than I (not hard), and who passed wine exams without reading any of the collateral - came a brief lesson on the botrytis fungus and wine fortification. ‘If you’re not learning, you’re not living’, as my old boss used to say. I’m not sure they’re interdependent, but I always liked his ability to inspire. 

Whilst one looked the exact colour of a urine sample from a driver caught over the limit, they were both exquisite. Their names: Lieser ‘Niederberg Helden’ Riesling (£10.75) and Trockenbeerenauslese Sämling (£9.50). Probably a point-to-the-menu job. 

I’d go to Fischer’s again if I was in the area. I like that it’s an all-day establishment and you’re not pressured to dine on a full three courses; a catch-up over coffee and konditorei is perfectly acceptable and exactly befits the style of the venue. In terms of the food, it’s not ground-breaking but it’s solid; essentially middle-European classics executed well. 

With similar formats and some of the signature items also available at The Wolseley and The Delaunay, I’d say that if they’re more geographically accessible (the case for me), there’s probably little need to venture to Marylebone specifically for Fischer’s. But maybe for the spätzle.

Liked lots: the prettiness King and Corbin are so good at; that it's an all-day establishment; attention to design details down to brass bathroom taps and the restaurant logo printed on the disposable paper towels

Liked less: there's a £1.75 cover charge pp between 12-3 and 7-11 which unnecessarily grates - just absorb it in the menu prices; the staff need to practice the pronunciation of those magnificently long menu items and wines
Good for: pretending you're in Vienna; a date, I reckon

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Fischer's on Urbanspoon
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