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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Thursday, 10 July 2014

le relais de venise l'entrecôte, canary wharf - review

A jack of all trades, or a master of one; the latter has always been a draw for me. A person or place that can do one thing very well is an attractive quality, be that whittling wood, playing an instrument or a restaurant serving up little else but steak and chips with a closely-guarded and very secret sauce.

Sure, they could tells us what makes up the brown-green gravy lacquered over the meat, but they would almost certainly have to kill us.

Some would argue the international chain of Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte was ahead of its time, fashionable beyond its years. Before it was on-trend for restaurants to specialise in a singular food offering (noticeably burgers, hot dogs and fried chicken these days), l’Entrecote Porte-Maillot - the inaugural opening by founder Paul Gineste de Saurs in what was an Italian restaurant he purchased near Porte-Maillot in Paris, called Le Relais de Venise - was offering just that when it opened in 1959.  

A green salad with walnuts dressed with mustard vinaigrette, followed by steak frites. And that is the full range of the main menu’s intent. Oh, and some sliced baguette.

Almost 60 years later, and with an expansion that’s reached London and New York, the intention for the additional branches has been for all aspects of the original Parisian dining experience to be faithfully maintained; from the classic French brasserie interiors and paintings of Venetian market scenes, to mirrored walls and the closely spaced tables that help lend to the romantic idyll of a bustling French bistro.

‘Faithfully maintained’ could be an understatement. At the request of two staples at any French table - butter for the bread and mayonnaise for the frites - we were told they don’t serve these and that the dijon mustard provided was a very good substitute for chip-dipping. Not in the original Paris restaurant? Then don’t expect it here. We cried 'sacré bleu!' in our best French accents when packets of butter were delivered with the crackers on the cheese plate at dessert. But whatever.

The only question you'll be asked prior to dessert is how you like your steak. Medium-rare? Medium-well? Forget it - this dining experience is not a democracy. You’ll have your steak blue, rare, medium or well done - with no deviations - and you'll be grateful for any choice at all. Want to make a reservation? They were ahead of their time on this too - queue up (at peak times) and wait until a table becomes free. Want sides? Tough, there are none.

Dictatorship jibes aside, the food is simple, solid and very easy to clear. And at £23 for the salad and steak frites combination, it’s easy to see why the three London branches (Marylebone, The City and Canary Wharf) are packed each evening.

Salad leaves are crisp and well-dressed. Beef is British, grass fed and aged for a minimum of four weeks. The frites are hand-chipped each day to the exact dimensions of the original Parisian format. Both the chips and steak are delivered in two servings - half a portion each time - to ensure you’re eating it hot and as freshly cooked as possible; clever, I thought. The meat was glorious - a spot-on medium pink, yielding, and a real pleasure between the molars.

The sauce is really something. It’s herby, likely with more than one - perhaps thyme, parsley and tarragon. The base is probably a bearnaise with egg yolks and a lot of butter. There’s likely green peppercorns to give that chartreuse tinge, dijon mustard, probably some garlic. Some speak of chicken livers. The truth is, no one really knows. But what most can agree on is it’s very good and would probably be bottled and sold if it wasn’t a requirement to list the ingredients.

You can ask (as we did), but no one in the restaurants know what's in it - the sauce is supplied to the branches directly from
the Godillot family. It's a lucrative mystery that no doubt helps pack out the branches.

Whether it’s an attempt to compensate for the absence of choice in the first half of the meal, or to showcase the in-house patisserie skills, the dessert options fill a whole page and range from £5 - £7. There’s gâteau and cheese platters, ice creams and tartelettes, and the profiteroles, chocolate sauce, crème brûlée and meringues are made on-site. We were many, and so most of the list was ordered with a criss-cross of outstretched arms dipping spoons across the table. My favourite, the profiteroles with light choux and the wanton pool of thick chocolate sauce they sat in (£5.95).

L’Entrecote appeals to me greatly. Inexpensive places where consistency is guaranteed - that don't require the gift of foresight to secure a table, serve really good house reds by the glass, carafe or bottle (Le Relais de Venise - Cotes de Bordeaux), and leave you feeling full - are what busy lives in busy cities need more often than we probably realise.

I'll be back, when the week has been long and the need to make a decision feels like too much hard work.

Liked lots: quality beef cooked to the exact specification; secret sauce; the fact dinner is delivered in two sittings to ensure it's hot and fresh; the wonderful heavily-accented staff in their French maid uniforms and red lipstick; no opportunity for 'food envy'; no need to begrudgingly allow dining companions to sample your dish - you're all eating the same
Liked less: not having butter or mayonnaise is a bit extreme
Good for: spontaneous eating; value dining; when you fancy a nice bit of beef; testing the palate to decipher the secrets of the sauce - good luck.

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

Le Relais de Venise L'entrecôte on Urbanspoon

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Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

Monday, 7 July 2014

the palomar, soho - review

“L'chaim!” my non-Jewish dining partner correctly exclaimed as we raised our glasses of crisp rosé to Papi (aka ‘The Godfather’ and one of the owners) who had been regaling us with stories, and the spread that lay before us.

“Ah, you know l’chaim!” Papi enthused, suitably impressed by the cultural reference (a Hebrew salutation meaning “to life!” and used during toasts).

“Yes I do,” my friend smiled, momentarily basking in the recognition before continuing. “I have a lot of Jewish friends. I grew up with a lot of Jews. I live in North West London, you see.”

“Ah yes. When I moved to this country, I asked where all the Jews were. I was told north west London,” Papi recalled. 

“So I made sure I lived south.” 

We duly threw our heads back with merriment at the punch line, delivered with a twinkle in his eye and the expert timing of an uncle with a great sense of humour.

We first met Papi about ten minutes prior to this. Moroccan head chef Tomer Amedi - stationed in front of us at our bar seats - around the same time. In those short ten minutes, we had been treated to shots of lemon and ginger infused vodka, tasters of menu items we hadn’t ordered, and a glimpse into the chef-love PDA’s we all know exist but usually remain hidden behind closed swing-doors, here on full display in The Palomar’s open kitchen. 

If the intention is to make guests feel as though they’ve been welcomed into the home of a Jewish family - which front-of-house member and our excellent waiter Jason openly divulged - then they’re nailing it.

The Palomar is the first international foray from the people behind Jerusalem’s hottest restaurant, Machneyuda. Yossi Elad (Papi), Uri Navon and Asaf Granit have come over to open a restaurant serving food from modern-day Jerusalem, with a menu that takes influences from southern Spain, Italy, north Africa and the Levant.

Striking royal blue frontage and a pink neon sign in handwritten font greet you on entry. The main area is long and narrow with the kitchen running the full length of the bar, and enough space behind the 16 stools for no further breadth than that of a single-file throng.

I’ve heard some lamenting over this design; busy evenings see those waiting for the coveted (and non-reservable) bar seating doing so in that lane directly behind diners, which must result in inevitable elbow-bashing and frustrated waiters.

But I hear they do the sensible thing of taking your number and calling once a space becomes free, so there’s no need for your clan to hang around like penned-in cattle. Alternatively, you can retire to the wood-panelled dining area at the rear - with space and reservations and tables - but I suspect that’s a lot less fun.

There was a salmon tartare starter special with the soft crunch of pine nuts, parsley, pomegranate, yoghurt, and fried aubergine lightly cured with paprika, the latter a recipe from Tomer’s mother. All components great in their own right, and together a plate of unbridled joy. The ‘Jerusalem way’ of polenta is apparently a smooth cheesy mass with truffle oil, mushrooms and Parmesan which is as good a way as any (£5).

As was the zippy little taster of polpo à la Papi, disclosing the secrets of yielding octopus seasoned with the saltiness from mulukhiyah leaves, in cahoots with nutty chickpeas, spinach, yogurt and a touch of chilli (£8.50). Be sure to order the spring salad of shaved fennel, asparagus, kohlrabi, sunflower and poppy seeds with a tangy feta vinaigrette, because it’s very good (£7).

A neat quenelle of hand chopped beef fillet from the raw section, bound by bulgur, tahini, herbs and pine nuts, was doused at the table by a lime green union of olive oil and lemon juice resulting in a sea of nectar surrounding the tartare island (£8.50). It was very good, but something similar from Arabica Bar & Kitchen is yet to be matched.

Then there was the ox-tail special with preserved lemons, challah breadcrumbs and cool bits of bull vertabrae I paraded in front of my dining partner’s face. Presenting it in a deep bowl with steep sides made it a little tricky to eat, and the meat could have been flaking more, but the dregs were great excavated by some freshly broken challah bread.

The deconstructed kebab - with minced meat, yoghurt and tahini - was a fine dismantle. The “four toppings” involve peppery watercress pesto, cured lemons, kalamata olive tapenade and harissa. Unveiling layers of flavour that jostle each other for centre stage, but united, put on a great show (£9.50).

We relinquished decision-making to Tomer for dessert. “One Basboussa!” he cried, to the instant feedback of “Yes chef!” from the kitchen infantry. Shortly after, a warm semolina cake with whipped yogurt, orange syrup, ground walnut brittle and a sensationally sour tuile was served and consequently cleared within neighbouring minutes (£6).

The Palomar uses ingredients I naturally gravitate towards thanks to, I suspect, the Levantine blood that partly occupies my veins. Give me meat with yoghurt and lemon, lashings of great olive oil, the bejewelment of pomegranate seeds, mushed up aubergine and tahini - or any variation around these stellar things - and I’m there and most likely, enjoying it.

I like that conversation is interjected by the battle cries of “One shakshukit, two tortellini, one hamusta, one malabi” and “Yes chef!” every few minutes. I like that waiters come around from behind and the side to top up water and clear plates with a sleight of hand that’s barely noticed. I like that one chef wears a flat cap, and that the reaction I got from our waiter when going for the specials was the verbal equivalent of wetting one's pants with excitement. I like the copious amounts of gorgeous olive oil used in most dishes, and the hearty bread to mop it all up.

“Is this a family-run business?” I enquire, as our meal draws to a close.

“No, it’s not,” Papi responds, a knowing look shot over to Tomer. “We’re more than family. Just not by blood.”

L'chaim to that.

Liked lots: It's an intimate space with a lot of room for creative expression; a pleasure to receive a bill that's half of my last few meals (I suspect not ordering a whole bottle of wine helped)
Liked less: I can imagine it gets a little cramped in the evening, but lunch was a spacious and languorous affair
Good for: Jewish food that isn't from a deli; interacting with the restaurant's great characters; a glimpse into the workings of a kitchen; solo dining at the bar

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

The Palomar on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

brasserie zédel, soho - review

Under the interminable throngs of West End slow-walkers and shops hawking tourist tat, beneath the beguiling facade of the ground-level ZL coffee bar on Sherwood Street, you can find a capacious slice of 1940’s Paris that I don’t think everyone knows about.

Hands up, I didn’t.

Brasserie Zédel is a grand dining room and just one part of the sprawling subterranean entertainment offering that occupies this space; it was previously the basement of the former Regent Palace Hotel built in 1915 as the largest in Europe. Behind the venture is Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, famed for their work on the baroque beauties that are The Wolseley and The Delaunay.

There’s also the café, a cabaret room (The Crazy Coqs) and an American bar serving classic cocktails surrounded by splendid gilded and panelled art deco luxe. 
The latter is straight from a Michael Curtiz film set; I fully expected a slick-haired and bow-tied Humphrey Bogart to sidle on over muttering something about gin joints with a thin cigarette precariously waggling between his lips.

I spent around half an hour in here after having to push back the reservation for my held-up companion. Myself and one other lonely soul flanked opposing ends of the dimly lit bar to a background of swing jazz. 

Perhaps we were both waiting for another, perhaps not. He looked wistfully into his bourbon, drawing circles with the glass to the sound of gently clinking ice. I was sipping a negroni and penning some thoughts. The desire to engage was strong, conversation felt imminent.

But any developing force of attraction was severed by the expert timing of my friend's arrival, and that was that. I don’t doubt many a new relationship is forged at that bar over stolen glances and strong spirits.

Straight out of a film, I’m telling you.

The brasserie itself is an ode to the romantic bourgeois ideals we all have of Paris; perhaps sauntering along the Left Bank in trench coats with upturned collars, discussing 19th century French literature, and following it with languorous hours of cassoulet, conversation and vin rouge.

As you descend down the staircase and towards the room, the fading of technology through quickly waning phone reception adds to the feel of transportation to a time passed. It’s an ample space that can seat 220, all marbled and gilded, with lofty ceilings, waiters in waistcoats, and a great statuesque clock at the far end. The menu is traditionally and unashamedly French - escargot, haché, soupe à l’oignon, steak frites, confit de canard, bœuf Bourguignon, crème brûlée, tarte tatin and almost every other dish you would expect to find under the dictionary entry of ‘classic French fare’. 

The atmosphere is hugely appealing. Conversation is nicely camouflaged by a din that doesn’t dip much below the rumble you’d expect from a sporting event, without having to shout. There’s no rush to turn tables - the space between our starters and mains was vast because we grazed on them so slowly. 

And whilst Edith Piaf herself wouldn’t be out of place serenading the room by the piano with La Vie en Rose and some rolling uvular trills, you get the next best thing in the form of live music each evening. We were treated to a captivating quartet with a horn, clarinet, double bass and an enchanting voice. 

And the food? It’s as authentic to a Parisian brasserie as I’ve ever experienced in that it didn't set off any fireworks (Parisian brasseries rarely do), but was solid, consistent, tasty and the price points for such prime real estate are nothing but applaudable. 

There was a salad with thin slivers of ruby beetroot, a generous round of browned and warm goat’s cheese and fresh walnuts (£5.25). The chicken liver paté was silky and flecked with crystals of sea salt, served with caramelised red onions and great smashed onto the slices of baguette (£5.95). Steak tartare - whilst not hand chopped - had a good texture, was well seasoned and more than pleasant wrapped between torn bits of the crisp lettuce it arrived with (£8.95).

The Mecredi plat du jour - saucisson and mashed potato served in a metal platter with a good dark gravy - was as satisfying as one could hope from such simple but well executed components (£13.50). And the bœuf bourguignon - a little higher up the price scale - was reflective in its portion size; unfussed, rustic, good (£19.50).

We were within those vaults for a total of five hours, and spent £60 each. Had we not ordered a slightly pricey bottle of wine and stuck to the prix fixe menu of three courses for £11.75, we would have spent a lot less. We retired back to the American Bar where I took my remaining wine and where my dining partner closed the evening with an Old Fashioned. 

Brasserie Zédel has only been there for a couple of years, yet has an old-world charm that places it decades before. When you want to dine out, don’t want to spend a load, quite fancy some live music, and didn’t have the foresight to reserve a hot table elsewhere two weeks in advance (they have a lot of scope for walk-ins), this is such a good option.

Don’t do what I’ve done all this time and dismiss the retro red signage and just-off-Piccadilly-Circus location as West End fodder to please the masses. I’m not sure there are many other places in London that can offer such uninterrupted late-night leisure - with that holy trinity of good food, good drink and great surroundings - at such value.

Next time I’ll try not to lose track of time so easily and end up missing the last tube home. Easily done at Brasserie Zédel.

Liked lots: value, surroundings, free live music, the flexibility to start in the bar and carry the tab over to the brasserie, late-night hours, 

Liked less: the food isn't sensational, but more than adequate to make for an all round very good experience
Good for: spontaneous dining, taking your time over dinner, dining out and not having to spend a small fortune doing so (unless you want to)

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

arabica bar & kitchen, borough market - review

"An Iranian and a part-Turk walk into a Levantine-inspired bar (and restaurant)". Remarkably, not the opening to a joke with potential to offend, but an innocuous intro to an evening at recently launched Arabica Bar & Kitchen in the thick of Borough Market. 

For me to delay a visit to a newly opened Middle Eastern restaurant for much longer than it takes to glance over the online menu, would mean committing nothing less than sacrilege. And so - on only their second day of trade (after a soft-launch period) - I arrive in the heat of the evening expectant and hungry and with a Persian in tow for good measure.

The Arabica brand began life on this very ground over 14 years ago, selling a modest range of home-cooked mezze wares amongst what was then just a handful of other merchants. Since then, it has expanded into trading at several London market locations, grown an impressive online offering and boasts a Selfridges concession.

The opening of Arabica Bar & Kitchen - with its splendid high arched ceiling and bare bricks - sees the brand come of age. It has blossomed into a devilishly handsome and confident young buck that feeds people great food and flirts with wild abandon from the menu. There are exposed steel ducts and mirrors to widen the space; there’s a long bar, booths and tables with those on-trend (but somewhat uncomfortable) classroom-style chairs, and full-length bi-folding doors to let in the sultry night.

The clientele is an eclectic mix; from straight-from-the-office types who - in spirit - clocked out shortly after lunch, to those free from the shackles of 9-5 LED strip lighting, sporting burnt calves and rosy cheeks from a day lolling about in London’s sunshine. The atmosphere is entirely at ease, whilst still sophisticated enough to impress a date or play host to a few suits.  

The menu is portioned off into manageable chunks - dips, raw / cured, fried, clay oven, stove / grill / charcoal, salads, veg / rice / pulses - each offering a handful of choices. Whoever devised it is a clever sod, because the format dictates what feels like natural logic - these are all small sharing plates, so we’ll choose one from each group. Be warned, doing so can unwittingly tot up the bill and result in a spread in excess of what is reasonable for two people to consume. Or in our case, a mere nod of acknowledgement from Gluttony. 

We of course, cleared the lot.

And the lot we got was very good indeed. Let me begin with the Lebanese lamb and beef tartare, and the fact that it was just about the best I’ve encountered. A fabulous grainy texture from the presence of bulgur wheat, hand-chopped meat, expertly seasoned, with herbs and onion and great olive oil - so easy to eat. I could sit in front of a film with a bucket of this and a wooden paddle and reach the bottom within six minutes (£9.50)

The texture of a well-cooked chicken liver is up there with the best the food world has to offer; the ones here were velvety and tickled by the sweetness from sticky pomegranate molasses, dressed with jewels from the fruit and a flourish of crisped onion slithers (£6.50). 

A moat of glossy whipped-up hummus (with ghee!) surrounded a chunky island of tender lamb fillet and toasted pine nuts (£6.50). The cacik (pronounced juh-jook) - strained yoghurt with garlic, cucumber, lemon, olive oil, mint and dill - was better than my dad’s (£5.50), and the moutabel - smoked aubergine with tahini and bejeweled with pomegranate seeds - managed to beat the other two in the which-dip-can’t-we-leave-alone game (£6).

Levantine pastries of akawi cheese, nigella seeds and parsley were good, if a little heavy. I prefer the thinner filo used in böreks, probably because they’re what I’m used to. The advice to wrap them in the lettuce leaves and fresh herbs they were served with did lift them, however (£6).

King prawns with peppers, garlic and the sweet smokiness of Turkish urfa chilli were very pleasant (£9). Then there was the pide (pronounced pi-deh) boat - an oval vessel of pillowy-rimmed bread transporting spicy beef sausage, barbecued red pepper sauce and yielding hot halloumi to our mouths (£7).

Then there were beef and bone marrow koftas with a defiant love-it-or-get-the-hell-out promise of “served rare” on the menu. My dining partner applauded the fearlessness; “Order meat in Edgware Road and they'll cremate it because of their religious beliefs. Persians are not Arabs - we like our meat rare! I’m so bloody pleased it’s pink.” Tight little balls of savoury and succulent sensation - very good (£9.50).

Our banquet closed with knafeh - a slab of shredded filo pastry cooked in butter and soaked in syrup, encasing a treasure of cheese at the centre. I’d prefer the cheese a touch more salty, and it needed more butter or syrup as filaments of pastry were catching in the Iranian’s throat and was a little dry on my tongue (£7 - I had a glorious one in Istanbul once). Then there was a Turkish coffee (with warming undercurrents of cardamom) affogato over halva ice cream which I thought was very clever (£5.50).

This place makes people happy through that age-old winning combination of warm hospitality and very good food. The entirety of the remaining menu are things I want to eat more than three times and so I suspect this place will become a regular.

My final words: chef James (who you’ll find in the kitchen) has lovingly recalled and transcribed the Arabica journey from its conception to the present day. It’s a great story, he tells it well, and it will make you appreciate the passion from the kitchen even more - do have a read. 

Liked lots: a great looking menu, that tartare, dips, kofta, cocktails, design, atmosphere, staff, a spot on wine list devised by wine man of the moment Zeren Wilson - we enjoyed a very agreeable bottle of Grenace-Cinsault 2012 rosé
Liked less: I'd like to see more bread options - the land of the Levant is so good at bread - not showcasing them here feels like a missed opportunity. Portion sizes can feel a little conservative for the amount paid - specifically with the dips. But then they were very good, so..
Good for: exciting Middle Eastern food that isn't stuck in the tired old ways of Edgware Road, and superior to the Wahaca equivalent that is Yalla-Yalla.

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

Arabica Bar and Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, 21 June 2014

comensal, clapham - review

The day I get tired of treating my palate to the sensational combination of lime, salt, beans, chilli, cheese, corn and coriander, will be the day I’m tired of life. There are few other cuisines that get me as animated, or can boast the same amount of vibrancy and energy within their dishes. Tease me with even a hint that a good Mexican might have opened in my neck of the woods, and I’ll be there before they’ve barely turned the gas on.

It’s something London lacks, I feel. Enough good Mexican restaurants. Lupita and Mestizo are certainly decent. I’ve given several chances to Wahaca and have left mostly underwhelmed, but with a matchbook of chilli seeds - silver linings. I’m yet to try Boho Mexica. La Bodegra Negra lost me at 'sex shop'. Few others have captured much of my attention.

The village-esque idyll of Abbeville Road lies at the heart of SW London’s “Nappy Valley” district - a handsome street to the east of Clapham Common, occupied by artisan producers, quaint cafés and restaurants, premium estate agents flaunting properties most can do little more than gaze wistfully at, and a lot of new mothers congregating at coffee mornings and lunches. It is here - alongside the likes of reputable butchers The Ginger Pig - that you’ll find London’s newest Mexican bar and restaurant, Comensal.

There are a lot of good things going for this place before the food even passes your lips. It’s independent and family run, the brainchild of John Sim and Cati Bego who met in Mexico City (and are due to marry); Cati has a background running successful restaurants there. Cati is Mexican, and her mother smashes up the guacamole to order out the back in a traditional molcajete (mortar) carved from exceptionally heavy volcanic rock - they get through 12 boxes of avocados a day. 

The well stocked bar has been paved with hand-painted tiles imported from Guadalajara. It has outdoor seating and those floor-to-ceiling folding doors. They open until midnight every day. The Head Chef, Eduardo Santiago, is from Mexico City and in the UK has worked at The Wolseley and The Reform Club. The bar man is from Mexico City. The staff converse in Spanish. Some clientele were on their second and third visits, and it already has regular solo diners propping up the bar, after being open for just two weeks.

The food - well, it was great. There was that mountain of zippy and chunky mama-made guacamole with thick tortilla chips that actually taste of corn (£10.50). The fish (salmon, cod, tialpia) in the tower of ceviche were almost completely opaque thanks to the denaturing lime - I’m used to it a little more raw but it’s ‘there take’ on the classic and it’s nothing short of fine with me, especially with the flourish of chipotle-infused oil (£9).

Cactus-filled tacos - with tomatoes, onions, coriander and lime - were excellent. Sharp and sour, the soft tortilla casings folded up and around the filling, half shoved in my mouth, sucking on the citrus juices with one eye closed, trickles burning a tiny cut in my hand. Give me twelve and watch me clear them (£6.45 - 3).

Braised pork-filled tacos, soft and spiced, with more hot salsa and lashings of lime, were very good (£6.95 - 3). A side of voluptuous black beans and kidney beans met the need for a pulse fix.

A chicken dish boasting breast meat will always carry with it the risk of lacking in flavour and the wrong texture. I tend to steer clear, but the promise of a green tomatillo sauce on the enchiladas suizas was not one to ignore, and from a plate less colourful than its predecessors, came some great eating. Soft and slightly chewy tortillas, with a sour and subtly hot sauce speckled with seeds from the fruit, tender white meat, crumbled and melted Oaxaca cheese. It was hugely pleasurable (£13.95).

I entertained dessert with little intention other than to sample a bite. But the Mexican rice pudding - thick and with cinnamon - was just a bit too good to leave alone (£3.75).

Then there are a whole host of spirits, 100% agave tequilas, mezcales, and cocktails that tart these up with things like pomegranate, bitters and hibiscus syrup (Mexican Cloud, very nice - £8). Special mention must be given to Manuel, the Spanish waiter owning front of house - compact, quick, warm, always smiling, and with a beautiful accent. I was close to putting him in my pocket and taking him home. When you hug your waiter on leaving a restaurant, you know you’ve received good service.

Mexican food should be fearless and seductive, demand your full attention and encourage you to succumb to the pleasures of life. I found this in Comensal, and I’m so pleased it’s here.

Liked lots: wonderful food and atmosphere, great welcome from John and Cati and sensational service from Manuel, vibrant interiors, being surrounded by customers fawning over the food
Liked less: I'll get back to you.
Good for: spending late sultry summer evenings at, squinting over glorious lime-soaked bites and too much mezcale

My rating: 4/5

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

Afiyet olsun.

Square Meal

Friday, 13 June 2014

salaam namaste, bloomsbury - review

Bloomsbury is an area that I - still to this day - strongly associate with my golden yesteryears at university. I bunked many a lecture from UCL’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in favour of social smoking and afternoon snakebites in the student union, located at a proximity too conveniently close for self-discipline to have much of an effect.

This isn’t really an area of fascination, unless it happens to be the place you live or study, or you’re visiting the British Museum. It’s dense with poor students surviving on Boots meal deals paid for with clubcard points, when bank balances are as below zero as a harsh Alaskan winter. I will assume the grown ups who can afford to live here entertain more socially-happening parts of town when they dine out. And sure, Bloomsbury is relatively close to the well-heeled business folk of Chancery Lane and its immediate surroundings, should any of them fancy a 20 minute walk for an Indian lunch.

Yet here you will find the ‘finest Indian’ cuisine, according to the website of Salaam Namaste, a restaurant in this spot since 2005, run by award-winning Chef-patron Sabir Karim. And yes, it is fine. In the same way five pound coins change instead of a crisp note is fine. Or your medium-rare steak request revealing only the most modest blush of pink within is fine. It’s ‘fine’ in that it did the job - it fed us and we ate (most of) it.

I specifically chose an Indian dining partner to assist the critiquing and fill in any knowledge I might lack. He proved a useful sounding board for the mixed bag of dishes we received.

“These poppadoms aren’t evenly cooked. Look at the different shades of colour here and here. Try this bit, it will be chewy and not crisp,” he was right.

Chukandari venison tenderised with beetroot had pleasing flavours, but the vegetable had been a bit slack in its job, the meat needing the serration of a steak knife to dissect. The spoon of dark pink beetroot dip was a delight though, sweet, earthy and hot. 

Beautiful fat prawns, were delivered on a scalp-sweating pool of Portuguese ‘fiery spices’ - essentially translating to the extra hot sauce at Nando’s. Coughing and spluttering, we sucked the sweet flesh from the shells with tingling lips - it was my favourite dish. Goan spiced scallops with mango salsa were soft and delicate, but perhaps needed a little salt.

Also good was the moru kachiathu - ripe mangoes and green bananas cooked with yoghurt, green chillies, ginger and curry leaves. Sweet and tart, with a back-of-the-throat heat tickle and chewy fruit. Very pleasing.

Ginger marinated lamb chops were fine (that word again), but not close to the falling-away disintegration from a hard stare alone I have come to expect from them (I specifically recall their outstanding texture in Chakra). Then there was an aromatic lamb curry, served in the clay pot it was cooked in, which looked good furnished with fresh coriander, but was just a bit lacking in both interest and succulence of meat.

Mooshed up baby aubergine with sesame and a mustard and curry leaf sauce is difficult to ignore on the menu, and it didn’t disappoint. But then there was the promise of whole grilled butterflied mackerel with a tomato and cucumber salad, which does nothing but call out to you on a hot June day. I have fond memories of eating exactly this whilst gently rocking on a boat surrounded by the azure of the Aegean on trips to Turkey.

But this was about as far from that as you can get. It looked great, all shimmering and golden, but the first bite told a different story. It was exceedingly tough, but worse than that, it tasted - wrong. It was detected instantly and I immediately extracted the offending mouthful - we left the rest of it untouched. My partner asked if it was cooked from fresh, they said it was. I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it wasn’t right.

For a Friday lunch, business was sparse. Those that were present were serving themselves from steel vessels on the side for the buffet deal. I think we were the only ones ordering a la carte, and so we waited a little longer than usual for the kitchen to manifest the dishes, but it wasn’t a problem.

The interiors leave a lot to be desired, with every inch of surface area assaulting the eyes with varying degrees of beige and brown. The staff were nice enough, and perhaps there’s a different vibe in the evening. This has the potential to be a decent local, and fulfill that requirement I’m sure it regularly does. But competition for Indian cuisine in London is tough and standards elsewhere are too high for me to hurry back.

Liked lots: spicy prawns and green banana with mango
Liked less: mackerel, interiors, lunch-time atmosphere
Good for: a reasonably priced lunch if you happen to be in the area; a candidate as a decent local

My rating: 3/5

Afiyet olsun

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

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Square Meal

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