Saturday, 18 October 2014

q grill brunch, camden - review

It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle Camden on a sunny Saturday. I am without question, not that person. 

All credit to them, tourists and slightly grubby teenagers seem to take it in their stride. Most will - for some reason - have Camden on their London itinerary. They’ll jaunt up the Northern Line, funnel-neck out of that tiny station in their hordes, swell into Camden High Street and progress along it at the speed and density of poured molasses. 

I’m not great with crowds (see my rant about Oxford Street). The last time I was in Camden was the day I packed up and moved out of my student halls on Camden Road, in no great hurry to return. But in these pockets of intolerable people-density, there is often salvation in the form of somewhere to get away from everyone else, sit a while, and have something good to eat.

In this neck of the woods, push on through the throng and continue along the high street until it becomes Chalk Farm Road. Rejoice at the exponential reduction of headcount with every few metres you advance, and find respite in Q Grill for some brunch.

The man behind the enterprise is Des McDonald who opened it in March this year, having already landed a big hit in Islington with The Fish & Chip Shop. In the kitchen is Phil Eagle who was previously Head Chef at Hix; both men have a CV that includes Le Caprice. The concept is locally sourced meat and fish, cooked via a charcoal pit grill and in-house smoker, and in September they introduced a brunch menu. 

I’ve heard people grumble about brunches recently, saying they actively avoid them or don’t see their point; I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a lazy man’s breakfast. A meal that encourages you to both have a lie-in, eat bacon into the late afternoon and accompany it with a hair-of-the-dog tipple and good coffee, is nothing but a friend of mine.

On the note of alcohol, they’ve set up a DIY bloody mary bar, creaking under its own weight of rainbow-coloured tomatoes, celery, chillies, sauces, lemons, limes and every other bloody mary paraphernalia you might think of. You can concoct a pitcher to your own specification and with your own fair hands for £20.

The food options include meat butties, grilled broccoli with wild mushrooms and a duck egg, eggs on muffins or toast, waffles with sweet cured bacon and maple syrup, and beans and egg on toast.

But forget all of that, because what you want is the Josper Fry-up. A josper is an elegant combination of a grill and an oven in a single machine - combine that cooking method with some gorgeous meats, and you’ve got yourself a plate of something very good indeed.

Bacon so crisp it was like crackling, a slice of sourdough, slightly sweet (but not overly) BBQ beans that worked with the saltiness of the pork wonderfully, a sausage, a portobello mushroom, an egg.. and ¼ rack of ribs. Oh yes. 

I cleared the lot (as well as a few other things), and felt fabulous. None of the self-loathing associated with finishing plates of greasy meat and carbs that poor fry-ups often are. This was the best I’ve had in a long time. I would travel from where I live in SW London all the way up the Northern Line and happily endure the weekend masses to eat it again.

Now guess the price of it. In the tourist hotspot that is Camden. With quality locally sourced meat. And that ¼ rack of tender, gorgeous, bone-sucking ribs that no other fry-ups have. Go on, guess. 

You’re right, they could easily charge over a tenner for it, and folk wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But it is in fact only £7.75. I know.

My companion had the eggs royale, with great generous hunks of cooked salmon rather than smoked. The large is £11.50, translating to two eggs and muffin halves rather than one in the small, we assumed. A great hit of protein and good it was too. But compare it to the fry-up, in terms of value and volume, and I know what I’d order.

There’s also the option for a continental breakfast at £12.50. You can help yourself to an unlimited amount of fresh pastries, fruit, muffins, granola, quality bread and parma ham from the counter.

I ordered a kale, avocado and apple smoothie to balance out the sin from my pork-heavy plate (£4.50). It was good, but needed more blitzing to eliminate ice chunks clogging up the straw. Even the coffee was good, really leaving me with little to grumble about.

Q Grill is a double fronted, large space. Around the corner of its L-shape interiors, there’s more seating and a mezzanine level, but it’s a lot darker back there and a bit smokey from the grilling. My suggestion is take the bright and sunny window seating with comfortable swivel chairs. You can indulge in a spot of people watching as you enjoy a coffee and a paper, and you can crack the window open for some fresh air. All these elements one looks for on a relaxing weekend morning came together during my visit, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. 

I’ve already told the in-laws to stop by Q Grill during their upcoming Camden visit (they're a great example of ‘domestic tourists’) and to get that fry-up. I think I might have to join them.

Liked lots: great value fry-up, ribs in the fry-up, bacon cooked just so, good coffee, great easy-going vibe, very pleasant staff
Liked less: I think sitting up front in the bright and breezy part of the restaurant helped the experience - I'm less sure about the rear; pricing of some of the other brunch items seem a little dear for what they are in comparison to the fry-up
Good for: wiling away a lazy weekend morning

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

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

Q Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 October 2014

barrafina adelaide st, covent garden - review

I have a lot of love for the new Barrafina in Covent Garden. The sort of love that stems from envy. Envy that places like this are not the norm in this country, but are in ones I don’t live in.

I turned up a bit before opening time at 5pm, gazing longingly through the glass at the bar seating occupied by staff already in their kitchen whites, fuelling up on an early meal before a busy service. I pleaded with them, with palms and cheek pressed against the window, to let me in and let me have some of what they were having (in my mind, of course). 

I was eager and hungry, and the anticipation I had for eating their food had been mounting for days. I was really looking forward to it.

My pal and I walked around a while, returning at what seemed a more acceptable time to embark on an evening meal. Only a marginal improvement at 17.10, but there were already three people seated at the bar and into their first plate of tapas. 

We chose our two stools from the twenty-nine, anguished over a menu that is almost impossible to exercise much decision-making over (the additional specials board didn’t help), and were charmed by someone who talked us through the dishes and the wine. Fast forward little more than half an hour and the place was full, with people waiting in the wings for seats to become free by 6pm.

The affection I speak of is for the feel of the place, the atmosphere. The plancha sizzles and smokes and battle cries of whatever the Spanish equivalent of ‘Yes Chef!’ add to the cacophony. There’s a rippling excitement both behind and in front of the counter, from the love of what’s being cooked by the chefs, to the impatience to eat it all by the customers. 

It’s exciting, real and palpable, and a pleasure to be in the thick of. But let me tell you - in terms of the food, it didn’t blow me away. And I was bloody expecting it to.

The pal in question is someone who’s lived and worked in different parts of Spain for some time. An ex of hers worked under Ferran Adrià; she knows her benchmark of excellent tapas, and spent most of her free time over there working her way through the best places to eat them. A good person to bring to the latest tapas edition in town that has everyone gushing. She too thought the food was ‘pretty good’, said with a voice of enthusiasm, ‘but it sort of ends there’.

Pan con tomate were fine, chunkier tomato than I’m used to (£2.80 each), but I’ve had better at La Mancha - a humble family-run Spanish restaurant all the way out in Chiswick with no PR fanfare. Pimientos de Padrón were also fine. I prefer more skin blistering, and too many of them were a little too hot for comfort, to the extent that the pal stopped eating them after three (£5).

Fried artichokes with alioli were pretty, brown and crisped up and fun to dunk into the mayo then drop whole into the mouth with head tilted back (£6.80). Suckling pig’s ears, served whole and fried, were fatty and rich and with more alioli (£6.50), but I prefer the cooking method at Duck & Waffle which essentially turn them into Frazzles, and who doesn’t love those. 

Prawn and bonito carpaccio could have been a lot lighter and brighter than it was. The quality ingredients were swamped by a pool of oil and citrus (which needed a hell of a lot more astringency), turning what should have been a zippy contrast to all the fatty pork elsewhere, to something heavier than it needed to be (£7). And a plate like that needs bread for mopping; you’ll need to order that extra (£2). But the raw prawns were wonderfully creamy, and the tuna firm and fresh.

Queen scallop ceviche fared better on the seafood front, zingy and delightful mouthfuls. They really are just mouthfuls though, and conservative ones at that (£3.50 each). Braised ox-tongue with crushed potatoes was another weighty plate. It needed something to lift the meat; perhaps winter greens instead of potato would have helped (£6.80).

We did attempt to pull ourselves out of the meat mire, with a tomato, fennel and avocado salad. It was much needed to help balance everything else, but not especially noticeable on its own merit (£7). 

Expect to find choice specials on the board, and to fork out for them. There are whole turbots, whole lobster - the lists are shared twice daily on the @BarrafinaADst twitter account. We indulged in a red "carabinero" prawn that can fetch up to £25 per critter, but on our visit were £16.50 size. 

Like I said, ‘a’ carabinero. We shared it between the two of us, however best a large gambas can be shared. After peeling away the shell, there was very little flesh to split (I did get the head though - result). I’d prefer to have a cheaper specimen on offer and get more of it with my meal. What was there was beautiful though, I’d expect nothing less at that price.

Also from the board, expertly fried little quail eggs atop good morcilla Iberica and piquillo peppers. A classic combination that doesn't fail, and easily replicated at home - once you’ve got the quality sausage. The best dish of the night was an exquisite flan with a coffee mousse, beautifully set, great flavours of vanilla and caramel; it was a positive note on which to close (£6.50).

I remembered towards the end of the meal -  before the flan but in the full aftermath of too many rich meats and not enough vegetables - that the crab croquettes had people singing their praises. So we got some - more cloying richness - and they were good (£4.50 for two). I’m sure I would have enjoyed them more if I’d eaten them earlier, but regardless, they were no match to the sensational ham croquettes at Fino.

And that’s where my summary of the evening comes to its conclusion; whilst I very much enjoyed the meal at Barrafina for the event that it was, I prefer Fino, the first enterprise from the same group. 

The idea of eating at a bar is fun and continental and makes us feel more European, but after three hours sitting on a backless stool, the spine gives in and it becomes uncomfortable. Of course, traditional tapas bars are not meant for lingering in for hours. You pop into one, savour a plate or two with a glass of sherry, throw your napkin on the floor, and move onto the next. So that discomfort is our own fault entirely. 

But it’s part of the reason I favour Fino; you get the tapas but in a bigger, more comfortable dining environment. That takes reservations. Sure, you miss out on all the action from the ktichen-table that Barrafina’s bar essentially is, but I’m willing to sacrifice that. 

More importantly, though, I think the food at Fino is better. I’ve been a number of times, and the simple aioli tortilla, their knock-out crab croquettes and that squid ink risotto never fail to make me swoon. There wasn't anything here that particularly stood out for me - except the flan. It’s worth noting I haven’t visited the first Barrafina, though, so I can't compare it with that.

I also need to mention my uncomfortable night’s sleep. I writhed in bed from 2am that night until well into the next day with a serious case of gurgle guts. I wasn’t ill, but my innards were far from right. I'm almost certain this wasn’t due to any fault of the restaurant, but instead our selection of a full range of dense protein and little fibre, that bubbled away in a toxic soup in my gut for most of the next day. The pal experienced a bit of the same.

I’m pretty sure I’d visit again, as there are still a lot of dishes I’d like to try. But I’d probably pop-in for just one or two plates and a glass of wine, and I suspect I’d enjoy it more because of it.

Liked lots: electric atmosphere, wonderful staff, great view into the open kitchen - it’s basically a chef’s table without the matching price tag
Liked less: there’s a lot of rich, heavy dishes on the menu - be careful not to over order on them
Good for: spontaneous and fleeting dining; going solo

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Barrafina on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 October 2014

grain store, kings cross - review

We all have one. That single friend who is almost impossible to please when it comes to choosing where to have dinner. That person with a list of allergies, intolerances or preferences longer than the Magna Carta, that must be met before they even consider leaving the house for a meal.

Mine in question is a vegetarian who doesn’t like goat’s cheese. Almost enough alone to warrant real life defriending, but I persevere; it’s with her I have one of my longest friendships. 

She also rules out Indian, as she is Indian and eats the stuff at home all the time. To this no-go zone, add most of the rest of Asia. Her reasoning: she lived in Canada for a year, where Asian food is big, and feels she has consumed a lifetime’s worth in those months. 

She’s not a huge fan of eggs, particularly the yolks (the specific reason the rest of us eat them), doesn’t like vegetarian food that’s ‘just a bunch of vegetables on a plate’, will only entertain centrally located destinations, and does not care for ‘poncy’ restaurants which roughly translates to anything that might dare have a tasting menu.*

Thank goodness then, for Grain Store; one of the few restaurants we’ve eaten in that has both met her uncompromising list of requirements and at the same time been very good. One of its (several) selling points is it caters for almost everyone; vegans, vegetarians, meat lovers, innovation seekers, the health conscious, cocktail chasers, interior design fanatics. There’s a lot going for the place. 

*Despite her foibles, she’s a great person, so don’t feel bad about me outing her dining downfalls on here. Pretty sure she doesn’t read my blog anyway. This will be a good test.

This is chef Bruno Loubet’s second outfit following the success of his self-named bistrot in Clerkenwell. It’s been open since June 2013, yet managed to evade my diary for almost a year and a half. 

I’ll be honest, I put that partly down to my thinking it was a vegetarian restaurant for a lot of that time. The menu gives vegetales an equal billing against fish and meat, if not the starring role; I think this message got lost in translation and I was just too lazy to cross-check it.

The space is cavernous, whilst still able to offer intimacy and warmth. Exposed industrial steel ducts and pipes criss-crossing the high ceiling, great panes of glass and bare brick contrast and compliment the choice of furnishings, which seems to be homely and shabby chic with mismatched white wood chairs and tables. 

The open kitchen is certainly that. There’s an unrivalled view into the workings of the engine room, and one that looks after 140 covers with another 80 or so at the bar and on the terrace is as loud and boisterous as you might expect. The chefs shout to overcome the restaurant noise, the restaurant gets louder in return, and it goes on - I personally love feeling like I’m in the thick of it.

To make up for having missed out for almost 18 months, I went twice within seven days and good timing meant I got to eat from two different menus; I caught the end of summer on my first visit, and the newly launched autumn menu on my second. 

The overriding message that comes from the kitchen is innovation. I can imagine a pep-talk from Loubet around the time of menu development going something like, ‘Right team, zis is your playground. Show me your creativity, show me your skill, show me what excites you, showcase your flare, but above all, don’t forget to ave fun. Allez!”

The food is playful and inventive and different and interesting. It’s stuff I can imagine is a lot of fun to cook. How can sweet potato doughnuts with citrus curd and dill and vodka ice cream not be a pleasure to deal with, either creating or consuming? (Incidentally, very good. Light but substantial balls of sweetened dough with tart curd and the cool soothing hint of aniseed - £6)

From lunch first time round, salted watermelon with minty borage flowers and curried crab mayo would be ideal enjoyed in the shade of the summer’s midday sun. A very light pea mousse tartlet with slithers of dark summer truffle, shavings of parmesan and the last hard and sweet raw peas of summer was delicate and savoury. 

A big bowl of sprouting pulses and miso aubergine had the type of crispy citrus skin nuggets the fork desperately roots around for after tasting one, but the sails of thin potato wafers that stuck out went a bit soggy in the mouth (£6.50).

Duck pastilla with grilled Lebanese cucumbers was a little too clunky compared to the buoyancy and finesse of the rest of the dishes, and the quinoa tamale with pork belly - a corn-based dough cooked within the corn husk - was good, but not particularly persuasive (£15).

But then there was the squash ravioli, a dish that remains a permanent fixture year round thanks to its popularity. Rightly so. Exquisite little al dente parcels of well-seasoned, well-cooked squash, served with rocket, a sprinkling of parmesan, the crunch from toasted pumpkin seeds, and a second layer of sweetness from mustard apricots. Simple, solid and very satisfying (£7.50/£14.50). I’m told if you pop in around opening time you can see the chefs assembling hundreds of these every morning in full view of the restaurant, a pleasure to watch I’m sure.

From the autumnal dinner, there were piping-hot wild mushroom croquettes, heavy with the essence of funghi, served on a mattress of pine needles and with pine needle salt (£6). Finger food inevitably means you’ll lose one or two to companions; limit it to that. 

The tarlet appears again in a similar format, this time with a celeriac and hay mousse instead of pea. Even lighter than before, possibly a little too light almost, verging on an ‘air’, but great flavours regardless (£10).

The squash ravioli made a second appearance, of course. Then there was a roasted fermented corn brioche with burnt leeks, a slow cooked duck egg and lovage oil. Fitting for both a lazy weekend brunch or a Friday night meal (£7). Slabs of salt beef cheeks with fermented cabbages, salt baked turnips and hot pickle mustard was like a deconstructed salt beef sandwich, with potatoes instead of bread, and meat that surrendered to the molars on contact - I very much enjoyed it (£17).

“Caesar custard” is an interesting idea. It’s the main flavours of a Caesar salad - cool green lettuce, Parmesan, lemon, perhaps a bit of anchovy - set as a warm green custard in a bowl. On top of this, good chicken and quinoa falafels, and some romaine leaves. Sounds weird, does work (£15).

Grain Store win some serious points with dessert. My summer lunch finished off with a dense and decadent dark chocolate and beetroot torte with creme fraiche, the texture of which I gushed about so audibly, I was generously given two further slices in a doggy bag to take home.

Dinner a few days later saw those excellent sweet potato doughnuts and a whole baked apple with rosemary crumble, creme fraiche and salted caramel sauce (£6). All things you instantly know will work together before tasting.

From the two, I preferred the autumn menu. Portions are generous and three courses along with the unusually textured but very enjoyable focaccia (to be dunked in the oil then squished into the little pot of dukkah) and some wine will leave you full, satisfied and with a bill per head of around £50. 

Three of us were left to occupy an early table for over three hours on a Friday night; you wouldn’t get away with that in most places. Staff are attentive, knowledgeable and all look like they enjoy their jobs. I can't think of anywhere else that's quite like Grain Store; that in the restaurant industry, is an achievement in itself.

If you haven’t already, head over to the now very slick Granary Square and check it out. And be sure to take the most pernickety person you know, I bet they’ll love it. 

Liked lots: cocktails are a big deal with dish pairings suggested; doggy bags are encouraged should you have leftovers
Liked less: a couple of dishes were less inspired than others, but the autumnal menu was consistent in what we ordered
Good for: taking a group of people who all like different things

My rating: 4/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Grain Store on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 4 October 2014

carioca, brixton - review

I can’t pretend to know much about Brazilian cuisine, but there are a handful of relatively useful nuggets of information I can throw into the ring. 

I know of Rodizio Rico, mostly through bad press rather than a personal experience, specifically this review by Matthew Norman from The Telegraph, which made me guffaw when I first read it. I can't imagine you'd find many natives eating there.

I also know of a little place in the depths of south west London, far away from everyone else but close to me, called Katavento in the quaint Merton Abbey Mills found near Colliers Wood station. The area is a pocket of arts and crafts stalls on the River Wandle, with an open air mini weekend market, live music, and a few places to eat gathered round the old water mill. 

It specialises in pastels, crispy thin envelopes of pastry encasing some sort of filling. I remember coming across the place around World Cup time, stopping for a very pleasant and al fresco beef and felicci (Brazilian cream cheese) pastel, and thinking, ‘this could be the place to be when Brazil are playing’. The website said reservations for game nights had filled up months before.

Finally, I know Brazil is home to the largest population of Japanese outside Japan; a really interesting nugget of information, I remember thinking at the time. It's something I learnt from Italian-Japanese chef and supper club host Luiz Hara, himself born in São Paulo. You can imagine the culinary fusions thanks to that relationship.

But that is ultimately where my knowledge of Brazilian cuisine ends. Prior to last week, I wouldn’t even know where else to go in London to sample and find out more.

It turns out, a good place to start on your quest for Brazilian-food enlightenment - and one that has in fact been around for a little while - is Carioca. You'll find it amongst the knot of compact, independent, international eateries on Market Row in Brixton Market.

They initially launched and operated under the name Prima Donna, with lacklustre interiors and the kind of matching wallpaper and lamp shades that would be at home in a DFS showroom. 

From the name, people understandably assumed it was Italian. So they’ve given it a face lift with an injection of South American colours, enhanced the menu with more authentic Brazilian dishes, and relaunched as Carioca, the word used to refer to native inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro. And the premise behind the food here.

I popped in for a weekend lunch, where the vibe is very much coffee shop come café come Brazilian restaurant. At 1pm on a Saturday, clientele were mostly feasting on one of four variations of a full English breakfast, or one of five ways to have eggs on muffins with hollandaise. I get that they need to cater for the hungover masses unable to move past the desperate craving of eggs, beans, bacon and toast. And they’d be losing out on business if those weekend staples were missing. But, you know - BORING.

Don’t come here for those, as tasty as I’m sure they are. Instead, venture onto the second page of the menu, where you start to see homemade Brazilian dishes make an appearance.

The feijoada can be found here, and likely every other restaurant calling itself Brazilian, considering it’s the national dish of the country. A stew of black beans with chorizo, beef, lean pork, bay leaves, stir fried greens and a pot of yuca flour which you mix into the rest, is hearty and comforting and there’s enough meaty juices to soak into the rice (£11.95). This was the dish my companion favoured.

For me, the winning plate was the chicken caipira. It’s food from the Brazilian countryside, a story of slow-braised meat cooked with shallots, ginger, garlic, spices, spring onion and parsley. 

It reminded me of my mum’s excellent coq au vin (she does it with white wine), the meat having the kind of surrendering physical state that offers negligible resistance against a fork. And it swims in a pool of wonderful juices to satisfyingly soak cassava chips (£3), rice, bread or any other carbohydrate of choice, I'm sure. I could eat this every day. Reassuring, wholesome, feel-good food (£8.95). It’s also one they’ve recently added to the menu; I suspect it will be staying.

There was also an arepa, a sandwich of maize bread stuffed with pulled beef, onions and bell peppers, of which I preferred the carb component as the meat seasoning was a little too sweet for me. The other half wolfed it with little deliberation (£7.85).

There isn’t much in the way of dessert other than some accomplished home baking, with a handful of cakes displayed on stands, still warm from the oven when we selected. The chocolate and almond with orange was declared a moist and yielding success, but I would like to see a presence of what would typically satisfy the sweet teeth of Rio. But maybe that is just cake, who knows. 

In terms of authentic Brazilian fare, the lunch menu is a little limited compared to what’s on in the evening. There’s a whole starters section not included during the day, with the likes of homemade churrasco sauce (the sauce they put on grilled meat) slathered on chicken wings, cured and grilled Portuguese chorizo on sourdough, beef back rib and mozzarella croquettes, breads infused with cheese, braised beef empanadas, Bahian fish cakes (also at lunch), chargrilled ribs, and steaks with more churrasco.

I’d like to return to try these, and I’d suggest an evening meal for a true insight into what they’ve got going on.

Carioca has a good buzz about it. It’s a cozy spot to shelter from the outside world, hunker down and enjoy some hearty South American home cooking, with a few welcoming outside-but-covered tables if you can get past the unflattering market spotlights. Regardless, I suspect I’ll be back.

Liked lots: chicken caipira, cake, staff, great vibe and simple but jolly interiors
Liked less: would be good to see traditional Brazilian desserts (whatever they are), and some of the evening dishes available at lunch
Good for: making it a local favourite, learning the ropes of Brazilian cuisine

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

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

Carioca on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 28 September 2014

house of hồ sunday brunch, soho - review

Any restaurant with a sound system greeting me with Lenny Kravitz that isn’t Are you Gonna go My Way and Bon Jovi that isn’t Livin’ on a Prayer, has already got at least a couple of ticks on my Sunday brunching check-list. Because I love both those artists, but hate both those songs. I’d expect nothing less from a feasting titled Bobby’s Rock n’ Roll Brunch. So well done House of Hồ, for that.

The Bobby in question is Bobby Chinn, the man behind the enterprise. Along with restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City back in his home country of Vietnam, he also has cookery books under his belt and a CV that saw him cut his teeth as a chef in the States. 

I say home country. He was in Vietnam for 18 years. But being born in New Zealand, raised between England, Egypt and San Franciso by his Egyptian father and Chinese mother, I suspect his home is wherever he happens to lay his hat. 

It was in December 2013 when Chinn decided to make his mark on the London dining scene and opened House of Hồ on Old Compton Street.

Despite the name and location in a part of town that’s never been short on after dark activities, House of Hồ is not the local Madam’s business address but in fact a low-lit self-assured Vietnamese restaurant in Soho. The flick and little hat atop the ‘o’ makes all the difference, you see. 

Chinn himself is a showman, awarded no less than Best Entertainment Presenter at the Asian Television Awards for his work presenting five series of World Cafe Asia. And this part of his personality is reflected in the design - confident, sexyily-lit, it’s a space that wants you to flirt with it, and it will flirt back.

They’ve joined a few others in the quite recent trend of boozy Sunday brunch deals that involve the words ‘limitless’ or ‘bottomless’ somewhere in the marketing spiel (also Flesh & Buns, Roka, Bunga Bunga, One Canada Square). Which, for lazy, slow-paced Sundays with requirements to feed sorry souls out of hangovers and into the cold light of day with vibrant, zippy dishes - or, just more alcohol - is more than appealing. 

Not that anyone with a hangover wants to see the cold light of day. Maybe that’s why it’s so dark in there - clever.

The main difference between the £36 and £29 menus is that the former offers a greater choice of both starters and mains (the more expensive one includes the shaking beef - the best thing I ate), the option of dessert, and cocktail pitchers. The format of both menus include one choice of main and unlimited starters, sides, prosecco and wine. But before you think about pitching up tent for the full 12pm - 5pm duration, visits are subject to a two hour turnaround.

Soft smoked aubergine topped with a sweetened fish sauce and crispy shallots, with astringency from lemon, slipped down with ease. Duch pho cuon were sprightly meat salads with mint and shiso leaf, packed into wide rings of flat noodle, with a hot dipping sauce like a runnier Sriracha. Summer rolls were fat and fresh, stuffed with noodles, carrot matchsticks, lettuce, more mint, the presence of aniseed, and a dark and glossy peanut sauce for lubrication. 

Seven-spiced marinated squid had the air of Nice ‘n’ Spicy Nik Naks about them - no bad thing, let me assure you. Cubes of lemongrass chicken furry with the fibre from ginger, packed a good citrus punch, while the “shaking beef” with oyster sauce, soy and whole peppercorns came in exquisite, expertly cooked, quivering chunks.

For sides, a pile of little juicy buds of a flower I caught as ‘thin-li’, but I no doubt heard it wrong or have spelt it wrong as I can find no presence of it online. Regardless, briefly cooked and doused in lime, they were glorious and different, and so they ran out of them by 13.15. I’m certain they just weren’t ready for it’s popularity. To replace it, a bowl of fleshy jackfruit cooked with good flavours. It all finished with a splendid crème brûlée which you might think has no place in a Vietnamese restaurant, but don't forget the country was under French rule for some time.

The bloody mary I ordered never arrived, and I had to put in a second request for the summer rolls before they appeared. Other than that, the staff and kitchen seemed to be on top of what was a full-house, never ending top-ups and constant orders. 

Did I mention on Sundays they have a live band playing grown-up versions of rock pop classics like Oasis and Nirvana? Well, that was cool too.

House of Hồ isn’t trying to replicate the simple ten-seater road-side pho shacks you might find down a back street in Hanoi, where they cook meat over a little barbecue fire on the pavement and you eat it straight off the stick. When you want that sort of no-frills authenticity with vibrant dishes to match - and those times are more frequent than not - head towards Kingsland Road for the likes of Mien Tay (also in Battersea), Sông Quê and Viet Grill. 

But when you want a sexy, fast-paced, buzzing, centrally located Vietnamese with a modern twist and most likely a smattering of Chinn’s eclectic upbringing on the rest of the menu, this is a solid shout.  

Liked lots: shaking beef - a shame that isn't bottomless, flower buds, choice of music, value for money
Liked less: you do feel like you’re clock watching a bit, trying to catch a waiter to get a final order or two in before your two hours are up. But that could just have been me imposing that feeling on myself - I’m not sure who was actually watching the clock in there
Good for: feeding a hangover, hair of the dog, drinking too much, eating too much, not having to eat again that day

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

The House of Ho on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

bourne & hollingsworth buildings, clerkenwell - review

We’ve done a pretty good job clinging onto the last of summer this year. And by we, I mean the great British weather. 

I write this on Sunday 28th September, a mere three days from the month of October. It’s almost Halloween (which means it’s practically Christmas) and today I not only dared to leave the house without a jacket, but also without sleeves. Thorpe Parked reached a sizzling 26C (LOG FUME!), and tourists dressed for England’s brisk autumnal weather could be found slowly melting in jumpers and boots across the city.

New all day brasserie Bourne & Hollingsworth Buildings in Clerkenwell is attempting its own last hurrah for summer with its choice of interiors. Or at least, half of it. Described as having the ‘faded grandeur of a stately home’, the design is more of an odd marriage between two quite different halves; one with a becoming and moodily-lit cocktail bar complete with piano, low tables and a lot of suede sofas to recline and sup tipples upon, and one labelled the greenhouse.

The latter is where we were seated for dinner. It’s a cross between a John Lewis living room display and the set for a summer garden party. There are soft furnishings upholstered in bold floral prints, salvaged and weathered white iron and cane garden furniture, and ferns and ivy creeping around the fireplace and out of hanging baskets, all in an entirely closed space.

It’s a nice idea. But I can’t help but think that if it was indeed a glorious summer's day, I’d rather be seated in the real outdoors. And if it was a blustering winter’s day, I’d prefer to hunker down with a toddy out the front rather than sit in a pretend garden, without the grass. I didn’t dislike the greenhouse theme, I’m just unsure as to its point. We moved to the other half for post-dinner cocktails; I preferred it.

The kitchen is commandeered by Head Chef Alex Visciano, with a CV that includes stints at two Michelin-starred Michel Rostang in France and Sous Chef at the Connaught. The things coming from it were mostly agreeable, bar a couple of initial wrong foots.

Bread (very standard, at that) was served in a brown paper bag. Now, I know Duck & Waffle deliver their pigs ears in a brown paper bag, but that bag has a fun faux-wax seal of the restaurant’s logo on it. That bag also provides a medium via which the ears can flirt with you - with speckles of inviting piggy fat seeping through the paper - before you even see them. When the bag reaches the table, you instantly know you want in your mouth whatever is inside. There is a point to this bag.

There is no point to the bog-standard, corner-shop brown paper bread bag at B&H other than to irritate. I can think of no reason as to why this presentation was chosen, except that whoever made that decision is under the misguided pretence that it is in some way, cool. It is not. The bag became a makeshift plate on which to place the bread so we could see it. An actual plate would have been preferred.

The second questionable foot was the marinated squid with potato and fennel salad, which according to my dining partner, tasted ‘just like chicken tikka picnic bites you get from Waitrose’. Not necessarily a bad thing, just a little unexpected and it could have been better. It was also a cold dish (hence ‘salad’); I think it would have come across better hot (£9).

Onwards and pleasingly, mostly upwards. A rabbit and hazelnut terrine, wrapped in bacon, and served with a pickled apple slaw was cool and creamy, with great hits of pepper (£7). The lamb cannon with minted crust was full of the taste of iron, like a rare steak but with better texture and without the blood. We cooed over it a fair bit. It came with a well-seasoned ratatouille stuffed courgette flower, a nice alternative to the more commonplace goat’s cheese filling (£20).

Four scallops with good texture came with a parsnip puree and hazelnut gravy, a clever combination and pleasant plate, if not a little steep at £23. Sides were unfortunately, wholly uninspiring. Carrots, orange segments and cumin achieved two out of three in that there were carrots (£4). Seasonal vegetables were bland and boiled generic roots (£4).

On a high note it did finish. The insides of a caramel fondant oozed into a pool of pleasure around the sponge, served with peanut brittle and chocolate ice cream. I’ve never come across a fondant that wasn’t chocolate before; I think I’ll need to make this one at home. Big fondant fan, me (£5).

The cocktail bar and the guys behind it served us some great concoctions. Don’t ask me for details, but I can just about decipher in my (by this stage, inebriated) notebook scrawl the words: ‘West Indian Gimlet’, ‘navy strength gin’ and ‘homemade felerneeeum’ which I believe should say  ‘homemade falernum’. All terms conducive to good drinking, which was certainly entertained. And I liked the bar stools. Black padded and velvet; plush and comfortable.   

The accessories to the experience let it down: gimmicky paper bags, poor sides, a lack of attention to detail in some design aspects such as cheapo brown plastic Homebase plant pots on the table. But the core components are there: good plates of food, good service, good cocktails, good ambience and the potential for some spontaneous drunken serenading at the piano, I'm sure.

The B&H Buildings is not a bad place to while away some time and eat decent food. It's certainly nothing less than fair to mention I visited during their soft launch period, and the whole point of those is to iron out any teething problems in time for the full launch, which for them was the 22nd September. 

Certainly worth poking your head around the door.

Liked lots: great tasting lamb, caramel fondant, cocktail bar, staff
Liked less: sides, squid, outside-inside interiors
Good for: I suspect the greenhouse is better enjoyed during the day, perhaps for a lazy Saturday lunch; potent cocktails, after work drinks

My rating: 3/5

Afiyet olsun. 

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

Bourne and Hollingsworth Buildings on Urbanspoon

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