Wednesday, 26 March 2014

tommi's burger joint, south kensington - event

To the person who said, ‘London can never have too many burger purveyors’ I say, ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Still, they continue to pop up everywhere like a teenage breakout. The burger trend - that feels like it’s been with us since BC times - shows little sign of abating. What’s nice about Tommi’s Burger Joint is that it’s anything but a bandwagon-jumper. The name above the door is that of Tomas Tómasson, the entrepreneur with a small five-strong chain in his homeland of Iceland (one of which I have eaten at - the country knows how to do fast food), an existing site in Marylebone and now this new opening on Kings Road.

The man knows a thing or two about burgers. The crowd at this launch were regaled both with food (tasty sliders, skinny salted fries, bubbles and all the posh homemade condiments you can pile on) and the story behind the deep-running relationship with this fast-food favourite (which outdates any recent trends) from Tómasson himself - he’s quite the raconteur. He joked about getting into the chef business because he could get away with being drunk on the job (I suspect there may be some truth in that), jested that flipping burgers was the only work he could get ‘after rehab’, and that he soon realised he loved eating them. He used to run The Hard Rock Café in Iceland, and claims to have eaten at least one burger every day for the past 10 years. That last nugget of insight was shared whilst the buttons to his shirt were undone in front of a room full of onlookers to reveal a very impressive 65 year old six-pack - his counterargument to ‘fast food is fattening’. One way to make a point.

Did I mention my business card got pulled out of a hat and I won flights and two nights for two in Reykjavik to eat at the original Tommi’s out there (again)? Oh, well I did. That was rather splendid. I’m really looking forward to it - the following they have in Iceland is huge and my visit (when I was there a year or so back) was secured through the high acclaims I came across during pre-holiday eating research. In the meantime, I’ll visit the Kings Road branch again to get my chops around a full sized beast, with extra homemade ketchup.

Afiyet olsun.

Tommi's Burger Joint on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

pacata, covent garden - event

Mention the words ‘fusion restaurant’ and I make that sound of inhaled air through pursed lips builders are so good at when you ask them what the damage is. The concept can be so hit and miss. Usually, miss. But whilst Pacata may market itself as an East-meets-West endeavour, I would describe it as Asian street-food with a dash of creativity. And one would expect nothing less from a menu designed by Yasuji Morizumi, the first Michelin starred ramen chef.

Morizumi was present the evening I attended a Pacata press launch, and via an interpreter was able to share a little more insight into the dishes on offer, ‘[Pacata] is bringing the essence of Asian street food to London - the menu needed to really grasp the palate of the discerning Londoner whilst adding an authentic Asian tang’. Owned by beer giants Singha, Pacata can already be found in Bangkok with a quite different format of casual dining and shorter visits. It’s new European counterpart is aimed at leisurely lounging with plenty of options for a drink or four and food to accompany them. The interiors are such that once you’re in, you won’t be in a hurry to leave - quaint mismatched chairs, untreated wood tables and cushions a-plenty in the subterranean den. It’s open from 8am until late each day with a menu that’s not too exhaustive, yet a decent proportion of Asia is represented. Expect breakfast entries of Vietnamese kai grata (eggs cooked and served in a pan with a choice of toppings - £6.95) and bahn mi baguettes (£5.95), to lunch and dinners of tofu miso soup with seaweed and black peppercorns (£4.50) and hot and sour tom yum ramen (£8.50 / £9.95).

The popcorn chicken is a no-brainer; anything bite-sized and savoury and covered in larb powder (lime, heat, fish sauce, herbs) that fingers grab without the brain being aware, are always winners (£6.95). The chicken in the satay was very soft, and the grilled prawns in their Thai chilli-paste-mayo marinade were huge (£9.95). At the table, diners are able to combine the DIY papaya salad themselves in a large pestle and mortar; it comes with soft-shell crab looking like pretty spiders, lightly battered and waiting for a dunk into lubrication before being devoured (£8.95). Beef yakiniku (grilled meat) is, as you can probably guess, a Japanese dish. Here served with naan, it needed a little more wet stuff present for the bread to mop up (£10.50). Seared seabass with Japanese curry was cooked very well with crisp skin, barely opaque flesh, and accompanying a choice of jasmine rice or fries (£14.95).

Chicken wings were lacquered in a bright hot sauce with sesame seeds, and the Thai style squid ink tagliatelle with spring onion, egg, bean sprout, Chinese tofu and prawns was made to taste like pad thai, but with a variation of noodle. Italian egg pasta replacing Asian noodles is not that uncommon, as seen in the sublime spaghetti with chilli-marinated cod roe and caviar sauce served at Luiz Hara’s Japanese Supper Club. The green tea brownie with thin slices of nuts and green tea ice cream was nothing but delightful.

Then there are the cocktails - the Amahata Rama is sour and strong and something I revisited at least twice more (and by twice, I mean thrice). There are many others and if cocktails are your thing, the barman at Pacata will be a good friend - venture off menu. This is a sound addition for the theatre-goers that fill out Covent Garden, and for those that fancy a classy drink and bite to eat to either start or end a night on London’s tiles. Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to this event. Square Meal

Thursday, 20 March 2014

the dairy, clapham common - review

Clapham has played a big part in my adult life - I've worked there for seven years. I've danced on the sofas at Venn St. Records - and set my hair alight in the process. I've snuck into the office after nights out to ascend to the roof and gaze over our spectacular city. I've lived not too far away in recent times, making the transition from north of the river to south about four years ago - Clapham North, now Colliers Wood. And I (thankfully) managed to never make it to Infernos during that time.

But when it comes to Clapham's restaurant scene, there's not a huge amount to get excited about. There is Trinity - recognised as a high-end neighbourhood establishment doing great things with seasonal produce - it’s on my list. Mama Lan does a cracking spicy ribbon tofu ban mein with pickles, and The Rapscallion has served me a very good duck confit with puy lentils and pomegranate before. Down the high street - for couples with a carton of Waitrose wine for the common wearing matching Havaianas, in March (please don't) - a place with Dualit toasters on each table where you pay for the privilege of browning your own bread. And there’s a Byron Burgers opening soon.
Not a great deal of note then, until that was, the opening of The Dairy in March 2013.

Along with a number of other high-end restaurants in London and beyond, Chef Robin Gill and his wife Sarah (commandeering front-of-house) previously worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. They’re from Dublin, now living locally in Brixton, and with their team have created a destination dining experience. It’s put Clapham firmly on the culinary map with one of those flag-pins you stick in a cork-board print of the world to proudly display that you’ve visited somewhere. It's had a similar effect. Until two weeks ago, I worked a five minute walk from The Dairy. I’ve enjoyed brief and exceedingly pleasant weekday lunches there, but they were never the tasting menus and they were never with wine. It’s taken the removal of my daily existence in SW4 and me no longer walking past it each morning to finally secure a visit. The environment is that of conviviality and rustic charm - seating straight out of a 60’s school room, daffodils and rosemary sprigs in simple glass vases, the day’s menu printed on rough brown paper. The crockery is a shabby-chic mix of pretty porcelain, vintage metal, slate and heavy stoneware, with some plates requiring weight behind to shift - the waiters must have some impressive guns. The front half is occupied by bars and stools for off-the-cuff visits (if there’s space) and free-wheeling ordering - expect to fidget as the seats are not the most ergonomic. At the rear you’ll find reservations for more intimate and private groups at the seemingly salvaged tables. We began with a swathe of green - hisby cabbage, crisped cavolo nero, ripe Nocellara olives. House lardo with spring white truffle, wild garlic and crunchy puffed rice stole my nose before my stomach - I stuck it right in and took a long and heady sniff. Several shades of earthy carrot slithers grown in the roof garden came with aerated buttermilk, sweet carrot purée, a small but intense crumbling of pristine goat’s cheese and toasted honeyed nuggets of nutty granola - each mouthful was a thrill.

Bread was broken over the table with the assistance of a knife - a mound of hot-from-the-oven sourdough - the breached crust bellowing puffs of steam. On this bread we alternated between the slathering of house butter whipped up with smoked bone marrow, and the satiny chicken liver parfait. Leave me alone with this scene for the remainder of the evening and I would have left just as happy. The unrivalled savoury pleasure unique to crisped fat was found in the hunks of fried chicken skin with a still soft layer beneath, baby courgettes that had felt the briefest heat treatment, and slippery wild mushrooms. Then there was a compact package of well-cooked seabass, swiss chard and bonito butter, followed by a Pollock-esque arrangement of smoked cod with glossy mashed potato, sparkly orange roe, fresh nori leaves and some sorrel that, for some reason, was overpoweringly fishy and unwanted. 

The 32-day aged Irish onglet with firm cubes of squash and black cabbage had flirted with heat so momentarily that beyond the outermost half millimetre, the flesh was red raw. Not a problem, if the cutlery was adequate enough to tackle this. With nothing sharper in the vicinity than a curved butter knife with no hint of serration (I did ask), I used the tools I was given to tear the meat apart into manageable chunks. It was a challenge to masticate in this form - it needed half a minute longer in the pan. We still cleared it.

An extra £4.50 for a finger of truffled Brie on toast was a pungent, creamy and oozing delight. A clementine segment sporting char from a lick of flames along with a wonderful neutral brown butter ice cream and puffed up rice (like less sweet Sugar Puffs) was really very good. But the salted caramel, cacao and malted barley parfait was better - a dark and rich consortium of all things chocolate should be on a plate; crunchy bits, viscous melty bits, smooth truffly bits, sweet and salty bits. Totally stellar.

To bid us farewell, a vintage tin housing still-warm doughnut balls dredged with hibiscus-spiked sugar, fragile shards of buttery shortbread, and glittering little cubes of sour apple jelly.

The seven course tasting menu for £45 will in fact get you ten separate and perfectly portioned plates of food (including petit fours and other throw-ins received with much enthusiasm). I am yet to find elsewhere in London with this sort of price-point in exchange for the same finesse of kitchen skill, number of courses and quality of ingredients experienced. If you haven’t yet eaten at The Dairy, a visit should be high on your priority list. If you have, I suspect your next is already on the cards. Liked lots: excellent value tasting menu; quality of ingredients; creativity of courses; number of dishes; location - a great restaurant only four tube stops from my house - rejoice; staff; atmosphere and interiors; the bi-fold windows open fully and face the green of the common - perfect for languorous lunches on a warm day. Likes less: - We felt a little rushed towards the end of our meal but were handled very well - we were moved to the bar to make our table free for the next sitting and had to scoff the doughnuts whilst putting on our coats. It probably takes a little longer than 2 hours to work through so many dishes (particularly if the extra cheese course is ordered) and that needs to be taken into consideration. I do think we were there for 2.5 hours though - the perils of booking an early evening reservation.
- They need cutlery with which meat can be cut. - The building always seems to have a lot of condensation - I can imagine it getting a bit sticky towards the back on sultry summer evenings. Good for: romance; affordable tasting menus with no compromise on quality; a reason to venture to this part of town.

My rating: 4/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

The Dairy on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

pipsdish, covent garden - review

From where I’m seated, my surroundings are that of homely familiarity. I have a view into the kitchen with a duck-egg blue Smeg fridge, double porcelain sinks, coffee mugs dangling from hooks, and cookbooks stacked up by the window. There are rows of empty shelved kilner jars waiting for preserve, and the remaining half of a recently shattered crusty loaf left on a chopping board. Heavy hooked-back drapes keep out the chill, and a stately wardrobe stands fast in the corner. There are film posters on the wall and the general nick-nacks of life scattered about the room. Any other place and I’d be seated in the dining area of someone’s home. Not so here; I am in fact in a restaurant in Covent Garden.

PipsDish is a venture that has taken the supper club experience into a more commercial setting; its intention is to make you feel like you’re at home when you are in fact, out. The man behind the enterprise is Philip Dundas - food writer, author, cook, member of the Guild of Food Writers committee and all round culinary dynamo. The idea of PipsDish was conceived back in 2011, first starting in Philip’s apartment and then moving to a disused Citroen Garage in Upper Street where, along with his friend Mary Doherty, hungry patrons were fed from this pop-up for almost two years. When the garage closed, PipsDish moved to Hoxton Square running a small one-table restaurant from the basement of the British Standard kitchen designers showroom. That lasted for nine months and was followed by the opening of the Covent Garden dining experience in October 2013, all six quaint tables of it. The concept is different to other restaurants in almost every way. There is first the most obvious distinction of environment - effort is made to keep any evidence of commercial activity hidden so as not to effect the unique am-I-in-fact-in-someone’s-home experience. The real kitchen where the food is cooked is out the back and down the stairs and the till system is concealed in that massive wardrobe.

Then there is the food; it stays true to the honest, unfussed, home-cooked fare so often found in the homes of supper clubs (and I’ve been to a few). And like a supper club but unlike a restaurant, there is no menu. Food served during a day is based on what Philip and team procure that morning. Their meat is from Gill Wing Farm in Sussex, the fish is landed from day boats in Cornwall using sustainable methods, they use artisanal producers they know. They work with what is seasonal and fresh and essentially, available. So how was the food? Hot and generous and served in heavy Le Creuset vessels with astrantias (one of my favourite flowers) furnishing every table. A chunky piquant tapenade - fruity with olive oil and served on bread (which would have been better toasted) - started the evening. Heirloom tomatoes tossed with roasted onions, a touch of chilli and cooling goat's curd was simple and splendid. An oven dish of flaky slow-roast pork butt, brimming bowls of creamed greens with garlic and lemon, charred aubergine flesh with yoghurt and pine nuts, and roasted potatoes sprinkled with parmesan are the exact sort of things you want to be presented with to accompany the bottle of wine and raucous laughter shared between friends. Dessert were silky pots of tongue-tackingly tart lemon cream topped with fresh raspberries and crisp shortbread rounds that crumbled and then softened in the mouth. 

Every scrap of our dinner was cleared with great enthusiasm.

A plentiful three course meal in the evening as above is £32.50. Smaller seasonal plates are available from £6 - £10. A carafe of house wine is £12.50, a full litre £22, a glass £5. They open Tues - Sat from 12pm - close. There is little I don’t like about this place - the no-menu BMF concept that will always draw me (sit down, order something to drink, allow them to feed you), and that it feels like a secret bolt-hole in the middle of one of London’s busiest districts only you and the few others dining around you know of. My experience at PipsDish is a blueprint of how an evening would feel if a friend invited me over for dinner and asked me to bring the red. And there is little that can ever be wrong with that. Liked lots: the feeling of exclusivity with such few tables; unique at-home experience when dining out; the obvious effort made to achieve this; everything eaten; dog-friendly; despite its small size it still had the buzz of chat and conviviality familiar to any good restaurant
Liked less: a couple without a reservation did end up sharing a table with another - be aware of this possibility, or just book in advance
Good for: romantic date; small parties up to four - although there is an area for an additional eight at the back; an honest meal you can't be bothered to make at home; an oasis of calm in the tourist-crazed madness that can be London

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

PipsDish on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Saturday, 8 March 2014

la mancha, chiswick - review

No neighbourhood can ever have too many good restaurants. When the fridge is bare, when the working day has been too long or when the prospect of facing a pile of washing up makes you wince, the salvation a reliable eatery can provide - a casual jaunt down the road or around the corner - is a cherished convenience. I am fully aware of the sometimes-forgotten fact that there are countless numbers of off-the-beaten-track, independent, family-run businesses throughout London that serve food people enjoy eating. They need recognition too - it’s not all about the showy, centrally-located openings, with their fanfare, chef pedigree and marketing budgets. Whilst I do cover the latter (and there are a lot of them), I like to devote some of my time trying out local places about town, such as Bibo in Putney, Sorabol in New Malden and Makiyaki in Wimbledon.

Most recent has been a glorious and unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon spent grazing on tapas and a glass of prickly cava in La Mancha on Chiswick High Road. Whilst Chiswick isn’t my own neighbourhood, I’d heard promising things about this Spanish restaurant and concluded the District line hike would be a fair price to pay for the prospect of a good lunch.

Whilst La Mancha might be a relatively new kid on this particular block, it was previously located on Putney High Street where it fed local patrons for more than 20 years. Proprietor, Mr Salvatore, upped sticks and re-located to this smaller and more manageable (but still substantial) site in the past year. 

With a south-facing bi-fold glass shop front allowing the unobstructed flooding of natural light, al fresco seating fully occupied at the first hint of sunshine, gentle Spanish guitars playing in the background and Spanish diners in the full flow of conversation to the right of me, it could almost have been Seville.

Tomatoes, bread, cheese and sweet quince felt like the perfect way to begin a brunch whilst basking in the sun’s warmth - intensified by the glass - like a lizard on a rock. These components form the base of most breakfasts I eat during summertime visits to Turkey, and it’s one of my favourites. Pan con tomate was generous (three large slices) with soft bread that was crisped on the outside and a superbly seasoned mash-up of fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. They were probably the best I’ve had - a winning balance of texture, flavour and top seasoning, with no way for them to be improved (£3). The cheeses were nutty Manchego and mild Galician tetilla - both as good as you would expect from Spanish queso (£8). The tortilla was, again, seasoned well with a fabulous concentration of garlic. However, it is served as slices from a bigger pie, the remainder of which I suspect is left in the pan until needed, allowing the cooking process to continue. A desired texture of a runny-centre it had not, but the flavour was certainly not lacking (£5.20). Padron peppers reached the table direct from the plancha and finger-scalding hot, seasoned with fat flakes of sea salt, lightly blistered from the quick and high heat (£5.50). Soft, steamed octopus (a texture so often not achieved with this meat) with tentacles displaying their handsome suckers, were nestled with potatoes and heavy with olive oil, the whole plate burnished orange from smoked paprika (£9.95). Chicken and Ibérico ham croquetas were little packages of childhood Findas pancake memories - alas, I suspect none will ever match those found in Fino (£5.50).

Fabada asturiana (white bean casserole with pancetta and black pudding) looked a little insipid on receipt, like it needed more cooking or more oomph. It was a look that was entirely beguiling of its flavour - a hearty and savoury plate, sauce thickened from disintegrated pork fat and mashed up pulses - don’t allow a lick of it to remain (£5.95). The crème caramel wobbled audaciously at every nudge of the table. Smooth and delicate with a hint of orange, I spent a good few minutes attempting to spoon up the final dregs of the deep caramel sauce from a flat plate (£5). The Tarta di Santiago - a traditional Galician almond cake, made here with Amaretto - had a very pleasing open crumble and was a fitting companion to a closing coffee (£5.50). The quickly-formed impression of La Mancha soon after being seated is one of homely familiarity and ease. Mr. Salvatore makes a point to welcome everyone that walks through the door, new visitors and regulars alike (the majority seemingly the latter), ever-present yet in no way overbearing; I felt as though I'd been coming here for years after just 15 minutes. The offer of a light hazelnut liqueur was made to each table at the end of meals, along with what seemed to be an overdue catch-up with many. The food here is not revolutionary - don’t expect veloutés or foams or popping candy; what you can expect is good, honest, competent Spanish cooking. When it’s too much effort to replicate at home, let a well-versed local kitchen like La Mancha take the reigns - you’ll be pleased you did.

Liked lots: the menu says their tapas portions are generous - they’re not kidding; pan con tomate; polpo; dessert; Mr Salvatore; staff; the cava - rough and dry; location - it’s a nicer-than-usual-high street with a Franco Manca next door 
Liked less: would have liked a runny centre for the tortilla
Good for: whiling away a languorous weekend lunch; private parties - there’s a whole separate area downstairs with its own bar that’s free to hire

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

NB I was invited as a guest to review this restaurant.

La Mancha on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

dirty bones, kensington - event

There’s a lot of filth-focussed nomenclature when it comes to casual-dining eateries these days. We’ve already got Dirty Burger in Kentish Town and Vauxhall, not to be confused with Big Dirty Burger popping up around London. It’s a fitting adjective to describe the sort of food you expect to get around your mouth as much as in it, eaten without cutlery, and always great with alcohol. To this list we can now add Dirty Bones - the new Kensington cocktail and dining hotspot for subterranean gourmet dude-food, where the light is low and the beats are brash.
Photo Credit: @TheGaztronome
A kerb-side kiosk during the day (Thurs - Sat 12 - 3) that opens it’s basement drinking-and-dog den to visitors by night (from 6pm Tues - Sun), Dirty Bones specialises in innovative takes on the classic hotdog (the “dogs”), some serious meat offerings (the “bones”) and an array of sides.

For lubrication, there’s a bar with talented staff behind it mixing up a whole host of suitably canine-themed cocktails - think Mutt’s Nuts (Woodford reserve, cinnamon and vanilla infused maple syrup, angostura bitters, lemon and apple juices - £10), Leo the Wonderdog (el Jimador tequila, Château du Breuil calvados, lemon and Vinho Verde wine - £8), Top Dog (Finlandia vodka, fresh strawberry, chambord, lemon, prosecco - £9), and more. Food like this is often given little thought, both from those producing it and eating it. But not here. The man behind this original menu is Ross Clarke, the group creative development chef hailing from the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, so expect a few touches of magic and unusual ingredient combinations. 

Photo Credit (right): @TheGaztronome
The Asian Dog is a piquant and sharp sausage in a brioche bun - kimchee purée, punchy and vibrant green wasabi mayonnaise, crisped-up seaweed and sesame seeds (£8). The real labour of love on the menu is the fried chicken - it’s quite something. Free-range boned thighs and drumsticks are brined for 12 hours with star anise, rosemary and garlic. Cooked in a sous vide for 6 hours at 58C, they are then chilled, coated in a spicy cornflour mix, and fried. The end result is superbly succulent - expect a chin covered in juice. Served with a charred lemon wedge for a citrus-caramel lift, this should be at the top of your list (£8 / £13). Mince from aged bavette and beef fat makes up the Burger Dog. Furnished with ‘beer cheese’ (fermented overnight with Marmite), shreds of lettuce, mustard and ketchup, it imparted a flavour of a spruced-up McDonald’s Big Mac - I liked it (£8.50). The sides put in a sterling effort fighting the mains for the spotlight. Triple cooked fries were impossible to leave alone (£3); bakes beans were boozed-up with bourbon and include marshmallows for their gelatinous, thicker-sauce quality (£4); and the mac and cheese sported a crunchy breadcrumb topping with an oozing, cheesy, carbed mass beneath (£4). The padron peppers were a little too charred (I’d say burnt - £4), but the jar of grilled pickles billowed out the smoke they were flavoured with, playful and engaging for all the senses (£2.50).

Photo Credit (top row): @TheGaztronome

Dessert came in the form of an intense dark chocolate cookie so gooey it was on the verge of changing physical state. A very pleasing neutral milk ice cream (a bit like kulfi) accompanied it; served in a glass with a straw to look like milk, my failed attempt at sucking a solid through it was a good indication of my level of inebriation by this point (£5). Dirty Bones’ take on the ‘petit four’ from that evening’s tasting menu is a dessert in its own right and a good, if not calorific, way to round off a meal. Should you find the room, try the 101 Dalmations cocktail - Bailey’s chocolate, Finlandia vodka, Disaronno, cream, chocolate chip ice cream (£9). Served with a defibrillator (or should be). A duo with an electric keyboard crooned some classics from the corner (think Mary Mary - “take the shackles off my feet so I can dance” - Shola Ama, Luther Vandross, Amy Winehouse) whilst we contemplated stealing the microphone and serenading the room between their breaks. Dirty Bones is the sort of place for a group of mates to take over the corner of and settle down for the evening with cocktails, raucous laughter, great bites, and a bit of sit-down-dancing. I challenge you to go and not have a great night. Liked lots: all dogs available in pork, beef, veggie and naked; live music; retro-cool interiors designed by Lee Broom; red neon signage; staff who dance along to the music with you; the freakin’ chicken Liked less: I always take my own pictures but the incredibly low-lighting meant most came out awful - thanks to The Gaztronome for his professional shots; the padron peppers were burnt Good for: a rollicking night out with your mates

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

NB I was invited as a guest to this event.

Dirty Bones on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

hibiscus, mayfair - review

I have a long list of Michelin-starred restaurants I’m yet to visit. Within London and beyond, the order of priority is a fickle science loosely based on what recent dishes catch my eye, and recommendations. The third very influential factor is the availability and value of set menus

A set menu in a Michelin restaurant allows mere mortals (like me) to visit them a little more frequently than we could afford to if we had to fork out for a la carte each time. The accessibility of their prices allow a greater number of people to sample some of the best cooking in the industry, without needing to remortgage the house to do so. If you’re not a fussy eater and your time is flexible, there are a number of Michelin establishments that have some great-value deals.

The Saturday brunch at 2-star Hélène Darroze at The Connaught is one of the best - three courses of exceptional ingredients and cooking, with course one and two being buffet. That's right, 2-star Michelin buffet. As much tea and coffee and juice served in stunning Hermes crockery as you can handle, and all for £55. You’ll be in there for three hours and won’t eat again for twelve.

Hot Dinners recently published a handy guide to the best London restaurants with set lunch deals, my first port of call when searching for somewhere to accommodate two ladies for a long, posh (and preferably boozy) lunch. The Hibiscus entry grabbed me by the shoulders screaming, “PICK ME". Three courses of sublime 2 Michelin star French cooking, half a bottle of wine, petit fours and coffee for £49.50? Well shut the back door and call me Mary, you've got yourself a deal.

The fact around a third of the tables remained unoccupied during the Tuesday lunch service we visited is beyond me - business folk, tourists, and people who never seem to work alike, get yourself a table. With an unassuming frontage that would beguile the misinformed of the kitchen-workings within, you'll find Hibiscus neatly tucked away on Maddox Street in the heart of Mayfair (I walked past it twice before realising where it was).

Following its revamp in early 2013, the dining room is now one of understated elegance and sophistication, without being stuffy - a pale wood floor, white walls with contemporary art, upholstered blue chairs, and a playful and brightly coloured theme found in the knife holders and water glasses.

It also acquired a new bells-and-whistles development kitchen where Head Chef Claude Bossi and team unleash their creative juices on new menus. Not to mention front-of-house were a complete joy; when my companion lamented over wine being the first thing she would consume that day after a stressful morning, our waiter quipped with a smirk, “Wine is better than orange juice anyway”. Good point.

On our table soon after ordering, an egg box with two pale blue shells filled with mushroom royale, frothy coconut foam, a touch of cheese somewhere, the surface speckled with curry powder. It was still early enough for brunch and these felt like a splendid start to one.

The rabbit and foie gras terrine with apple, elegantly arranged radicchio and a pea-green dollop of hot lovage mustard had all the pleasure of a slab of cold-cut enjoyed on a picnic blanket amongst overgrown grass.

A jug of vichyssoise (a soup of leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, and chicken stock) poured at the table, created an island of black truffle topped with ornate parmesan crisps in a grass-green sea. Light and earthy.

Scottish beef bavette (from the sirloin, between the porterhouse and the hind leg), with its crusted exterior, deep pink middle, rich jus, sweet barbecued Spanish calcot onions, and horse-fat pommes hollowed out like puris, was a triumph. The sort of soft and yielding meat you cut tiny amounts from at a time in an attempt to make the dish last longer.

Choux farci is the French term for stuffed cooked cabbage leaves, like one massive, glorious dolma. In this instance, concealing a mound of flaky slow-cooked ox-cheek, seasoned with anchovy, sitting on a velvety parsley root purée, doused in cooking juices and diced apricot for a touch of sweet. Hugely inviting, with the breach of the cabbage casing imparting a lot of pleasure and table-cooing.

Towers of piped coffee sorbet sandwiched between two halves of choux pastry were model profiteroles by which all others should be measured. Two flanked each side of a pretty whisky crème Anglaise pattern on the plate, and were smothered with melted dark chocolate. On the menu, it read so well. It tasted better.

A drift of sweet potato and clementine hillocks with a single cheesecake-mix quenelle, topped with speckled meringue shards, was an ingredient combination I wish I could come up with. 

There seems to be a current trend of petit fours invoking childhood Cadbury-related memories of late - the delightful dark chocolate Crunchy bites at The Quality Chop House and now the wonderful minty Aero-esque mouthfuls at Hibiscus. Restaurants, please continue with this theme - I’m really enjoying it. Batons of blanched rhubarb that were tart and juicy came with a pot of vanilla sugar in which to dunk them. Mini madeleines reached the table still warm, pistachio, orange and oats and raisins, light and buttery

Claude Bossi’s cooking is assured yet playful, seemingly effortless yet expertly constructed, and he creates menus of things you want to eat. There is no pomp and circumstance and it’s not in the slightest bit intimidating. There’s just a lot of wonderful, accessible cooking with flare, enjoyed in rested and accommodating surroundings. Lunch there felt like a mini-holiday - I left revived, happy and entirely satisfied. I will be back, and back. 

Liked lots: incredible lunch set-menu value; amount of wine included (we didn't even finish it); Bossi himself coming out of the kitchen and saying hello to each table - a warm touch I've not experienced in another Michelin restaurant; exemplary cooking; they were entirely accommodating about my big SLR
Likes less: we were charged £5 for table water, which was from a jug. If they charge for water from the tap, that's annoying and they shouldn't
Good for: an accessible introduction into Michelin-standard cooking; a nice chat with front-of-house; some great eating

My rating: 4.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Hibiscus on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

Monday, 3 March 2014

bibo, putney - review

Putney is not a dining destination. Londoners don’t, after contemplating where to visit of an evening, respond in exaltation with “Putney!”. It’s a little out of the way for those not situated in SW London. Even for those who are, it’s a first-travel-in-then-out scenario if you’re based on the Northern Line (like me).

A neighbourhood, Putney is. What a neighbourhood needs are good local restaurants that become regular haunts for residents who are after good food and wine. What Putney has recently acquired is a new-kid-on-the-block Italian offering, that, with a few improvements, has the potential to become a local favourite.

Upper Richmond Road is as uninspiring a high-street as most in London. But nestled in the bosom of a Nando’s, Pizza Express and Dominos that flank either side, Bibo and its interiors have a transportational quality that plucks you out of SW15 and plants you straight into a Soho dining-hotspot. It looks great - airy, high-ceilinged, white-washed exposed brick, dark wood, leather banquettes, a mezzanine at the rear, and an impressive bar upon entry. Once you’re in, you’ll be in no hurry to leave.

Commandeering the kitchen is Head Chef Chris Beverley (formerly at Theo Randall at The InterContinental), offering a menu of regional Italian cuisine. Portioned off into antipasti, primi, secondi and dessert, the pasta is very much where it is at. And it’s where I’ll start. Wide ribbons of crimped-edge pappardelle folded onto themselves, making best friends with a light rabbit and Prosecco ragu, was a very pleasing plate of substance and bite (small portion - £9). Raggedy black squid-ink tagliarini with soft slices of octopus, glorious amounts of garlic and flecked with red chilli was devastatingly good (small portion - £9). Present to me a kilo of this and watch it disappear before your eyes. The pastas were so impossible to ignore, we ordered a third, despite having already worked our way through most of the antipasti. The final was the polenta ravioli - al dente pasta parcels filled with wonderfully textured polenta, sitting in a pool of thickened stock bolstered with dried porcini, artichokes and parsley (small portion - £9). Really splendid.

Backwards to the antipasti. It’s impossible for me not to order chicken liver when I see it on a menu, and there were no exceptions here; crisp crostinis heavy with olive oil were a happy method of transportation for the rough paté, seasoned with capers and sporting hats of crisped pancetta (£5). Potato and ‘nduja crochette were pretty good with a very delicate touch of heat, but could have done with more (£4). The farro arancini less so, lacking in discernible flavour (£3.50).

The borlotti bean bruschetta was ok - sweet roasted tomatoes, good bread, but again the beans themselves were short on flavour, seasoning and presence in general (£6.50). A dish of salt cod, chickpeas, chard and tomato was the D-grade student of this lunch-time class - the pulses were too al dente, the sauce was watery, I was left desperately seeking savour - I’d go so far as to say I didn’t enjoy this plate (£7).

A good finale we did finish on, though. A creamy mound of salty gorgonzola against sweet poached pear and toasted and honeyed walnuts, was very pleasant (£6.50).

How the pastas can be so uniformly impressive, and the antipastis range from not-bad to an-effort-to-finish, almost makes me think there were two entirely different chefs behind them. In different kitchens. Which group the secondi fall into, I can’t say - we didn't order any.

My final concern is the pricing and portion-size ratio. Whilst the pastas were magnificent, £9 for a small plate seems a lot (and £14 for large - of which I didn’t catch sight of - also seems high). A pound for each very small crochette seems a lot. Mains ranging from £16 to £19.50 seem a lot. Particularly when factoring in location and comparisons to some very good centrally located Italian eateries that are less pricey (specifically Bocca di Lupo and Mele e Pere - the latter of which has a pre-theatre and lunch menu that are scandalously priced for the cooking you get in return). 

Despite the food being discounted at 50% during the soft-launch period we visited, we still racked up a lunch-time bill of over £30 per head with a glass of wine each. If the food was fully priced, I would have paid an amount that would not have sat right with me for both the quality and quantity of food I received. My feeling is the prices need to reduce by around 20%, or the portion sizes should increase. But then, what the hell do I know.

A special note goes out to wine man of the moment Zeren Wilson who developed the offering available at Bibo. The Pino Noir and Barbera we had were very accommodating, and Zeren was able to identify what was in our glasses by colour alone - what a pro.

The menu at Bibo reads of everything you would want to eat, yet success is hit and miss from one course to the next with prices not reflecting what is being received. If the kitchen can recover the intermittently AWOL flavour, I think the food would have a really good thing going on and I would probably return for it. 

Liked lots: the pastas - all three we had; design and interiors; staff were wonderful; the menu reads very well
Liked less: location; salt cod and chickpeas; lack of seasoning and flavour in more than one dish; prices that seem too high
Good for: trying out if you're in the neighbourhood - I'd give them another go once they're more settled if Putney were mine

My rating: 3/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Bibo on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

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