Saturday, 31 May 2014

24hrs of eating in soho

For those wanting to experience a true slice of London life without the rose-tinted spectacles of well-kept tourist attractions and stately buildings obscuring the view, there are few better places to while away all hours of the day than at its pulsating core; the area mainly bound by the arterial routes of Shaftesbury Avenue, Oxford Street and Regent Street, also known as Soho.

Never was there a truer representation of the full spectrum of the walks of life that call this city home than within this approximate square mile of London. With a history steeped in entertainment and stimulation of every nature, you would be hard pressed not to find something that floats your boat with an unrivalled buoyancy.

The coarse queens of Old Compton, the vinyl votaries of Berwick, jazz junkies on Gerrard, Italian expats and strong espressos on Frith, working girls gyrating on Green Court, media creatives with sockless feet in loafers, Big Issue sellers and suited city traders swigging pints, pushers and gawkers, pimps and poets, preachers and prostitutes, titillation and tourists, clip joints and clerics, cops and robbers, Hare Krishnas and celebrities, musicians and poppers, even a Church of England primary school - you name it, Soho has it.

When it comes to entertainment in this neighbourhood, Soho caters for every penchant and predilection under the sun: theatre, cinema, striptease, brothels, kitsch cabaret, massages, drinking, book stores, narcotics, people-watching, dancing, debate, religion, stand-up comedy, live music, and galleries to name a few. Generous in its provisions to satiate so many base human desires, Soho does the more socially acceptable one exceptionally well too - food and eating it.

One could easily argue, is there ever really a need to leave? A question often posed in my four years living and studying in the surrounding areas. A pocket of London I adore and one that can understandably be quite the distraction. Here’s my personal guide of how to sustain yourself for 24hrs in this decadent district. 


Pick up a print that takes your fancy from Wardour News (118 - 120 Wardour Street) - one of the most impressive ranges of publications for sale in a newsagents you will ever see. From international newspapers to specific high-end editorials covering food, fashion, the gay and lesbian scene, travel and a whole lot more - if it’s in circulation, you'll find it here.

Armed with your niche glossy, head over to Nordic Bakery to start your day in the exceptional way the Scandinavians do so well.

Fika the early morning away with quality coffee, cinnamon buns, dark ryes topped with smoked salmon, herrings, and revel in the peace. Expect to share the space with some of the Soho creatives attracted by the clean lines of the interiors, and that have likely played a part in designing your reading material.

cinnamon buns at Nordic Bakery


To keep it closer to home try out Damson & Co (21 Brewer Street). A much welcomed British deli and coffee house specialising in British cheeses, charcuterie and ceviche - possibly three of the best things to eat, ever. With cool and industrialised interiors, friendly and knowledgeable staff and exceptional sparkling red wine (who even knew there was such a thing), it’s a great option to kill an hour or two whilst consuming some quality fare.

Should the taste buds tingle for the Middle Eastern flavours of tahini and pomegranate molasses, head over to Yalla Yalla for Beirut street food. With a wide range of small plated mezzes (all served with pitta, olives and pickles) and larger mains to select from, you can either share with companions or indulge in a satisfying and solitary fill.

Another great option for a lively lunch enjoyed with friends is Barrafina where you’ll find some of the best tapas in the city. Stool perching allows visitors to embrace the true style of tapas with such traditional plates tempting diners as pan con tomate, prawn and piquillo pepper tortilla and tuna tartar. Expect a wait occupied by nibbles and drinks in the standing area while seating becomes available (they don’t take reservations) and keep your group to four or under.

octopus tapas at Barrafina


If the evening calls for life affirming liquid goodness to help rest weary feet, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place than either Tonkotsu or Bone Daddies, both purveyors of exceptional milky and deeply flavoursome Japanese ramen. In a similar vein, Koya will deliver on sublime udon noodles served cold with dipping sauces, or in hot broths and presented simply and with elegance.

Should the occasion befit a fine-dining splurge then Michelin starred Yauatcha is unlikely to disappoint. Serving high-end Chinese food from steamed buns and dim sum to hand-pulled noodle and rice dishes, along with delights such as jasmine tea smoked ribs and Mongolian style venison, this self-styled contemporary dim sum tea house will certainly tick all the boxes for a special occasion, but do prepare for a dented wallet.

For something a little more accessible, head over to Pizza Pilgrims where two brothers have moved from selling Napoli-inspired pizza from their three-wheeled Piaggio Ape complete with pizza oven (driven here from Italy), to bricks and mortar in the centre of Soho. Sourdough pizza bases blistered from the authentic clay gas-fired oven and rich San Marzano sauces complete the experience. Stick to the marinara or margherita classics for some of the most authentic pizza you’ll eat outside Napoli in this city.

the Pizza Pilgrims pizza oven

Late night

Pull up a pew outside the late night coffee-culture stalwart of Soho that is Bar Italia serving quality strong coffee to ardent followers from 7am to 5am every day since 1949. A haunt for Soho residents, coffee connoisseurs, creatives and ex-pat Italians alike, it’s a perfect place to banish the onset of fatigue and observe the ebb and flow of life on these streets in the small hours of the morning.

Before the dawn

For the insomniacs, vampires and those who simply refuse to call it a night, Soho’s 24hr dining venues lend a shoulder to momentarily rest tender heads while the party continues on around. When the body is beat but the brain thinks it’s breakfast time, Balans is a sure bet for decent eggs served by flirtatious waiters keen to continue the evening’s frivolities during their shift.

If the hankering is for a second dinner to soak up the sauce then the Chinese fare served at Old Town 97 (previously '1997' when I used to frequent it many a hazy evening - 19 Wardour Street ) will hit the spot like an arrow on a bullseye. Gather your comrades (including the new ones acquired during the course of the evening) and chow down on some perfect crispy Peking duck and pancakes. For mains and to re-awaken the senses, select your preference of carbohydrate and request a chilli oil so hot you could only ever entertain it inebriated.

A night in

With eyes squinting at the dawn of a new day breaking over Soho Square and energy reserves fast depleting, the realisation that the rest of the day will mostly be spent recovering on the sofa hits fast.

With foresight still functioning, make a beeline to Lina Stores once they open to gawp at a huge array of floor to ceiling Italian delicacies, charcuteries, cheese and brimming bowls of antipasti. Purchase a portion of their delicious and fresh ravioli made on the premises daily by pasta chef Gianni, and select from such tempting flavour combinations as beetroot with goats cheese, spinach with ricotta, or veal. Chuck them in boiling water, drizzle with olive oil and you can retreat back to the dark of the living room.

Squeeze in a sit-down at one of their outside tables, drink an espresso and digest the splendour that was the previous 24 hours before heading home.

pasta chef Gianni with all his handiwork at Lina Stores

Soho is one big delicious sullied multi-faceted melting-pot of an oxymoron at the heart of our capital city. Give it your unbroken attention for a full day and you will be rewarded with stories worth telling. 

For as the English author Samuel Johnson once quipped, ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford’.

Monday, 26 May 2014

zumbura, clapham - review

The first thing you’ll notice about Indian restaurant Zumbura - nestled in the well-to-do idyll of Clapham Old Town - is that in almost every way, it does not feel like an Indian restaurant. 

The interiors: no linen, leather bound menus, chandeliers, or sitar recordings. Instead, a vivid ceiling butterfly-and-birdscape, and deep turquoise and bare brick walls embellished with wild flowers in slim glass vases. 

There’s a wooden bar of organic form laden with ingredients used in the kitchen including the namesake fruit zumbura (pomelo in Urdu) and fresh tamarind. The crockery is beautiful, imperfect, handmade, and purchased from a local pottery. Brass light fittings with bare bulbs adorn the walls, chairs are seemingly salvaged classroom-style wood and metal, and there’s a presence of shabby chic nick-nacks.

It feels altogether South American to me, reinforced by the large and full-on Argentinian family force at the table one over having a rollicking time in Spanish, and another table of three Spanish friends. They even have tequila on the after-dinner digestif menu.

The agreeable interiors can no doubt be attributed to the trio behind the enterprise - co-founders of furniture retailer Dwell, Aamir Ahmad, Sean Galligan and David Garrett. The kitchen and the food cooked in it often make the heart of a home, so whilst sidestepping from the furniture business to restaurateur seems a little off-tangent, I suppose a (tenuous) link could be argued.

The staff: an absence of any sub-continental front-of-house. 

The food: clean, sprightly, fresh, vibrant; small plates intended for sharing, Indian-tapas style. There are no superfluous and sorry-looking lettuce plate adornments. There is no poppadom fodder to make you thirsty and order more alcohol. There are no layers of oil pooling on the surface of sauces (I know people who stick the edge of a serviette in to absorb the excess sin before eating).

Chef Raju Rawat (previously in the kitchens of Bombay Bicycle Club, The Cinnamon Club and Michelin-starred Benares) was drafted in to help achieve Ahmad’s vision: to create a British Indian restaurant authentic to the cooking found in traditional Punjab homes, without the customisation so often used to appease western palates at the detriment of dishes. 

If his intention is for the food to taste like no other found in Indian restaurants, then based on my restaurant repertoire, he’s nailed it.

Spinach and onion pakoras, battered in chickpea flour and lightly fried were entirely without grease, blisteringly hot straight from the oil, sporting a flourish of fresh coriander and nothing short of a delight dipped into the tart and sour imli (tamarind) and green chutneys (£4.50).

A nod to the Indian street-side favourite that is chaat - bread fried to a crisp and puffed rice, doused in a calming yoghurt and a piquant ginger tamarind sauce, and entertaining a mix of tangy, salty spices - one of my favourite plates and one for the teeth as much as the taste buds (£4.50).

Potato cakes were smooth and delicately spiced rounds, providing a further great medium for the zippy chutneys (£4.50)*, and the chapli kebabs were handsome, dark and slightly charred disks, soft patties of beef kneaded with garlic, ginger and spices (£7.50)*. Breaking either of these apart revealed the still-vibrant presence of component ingredients - coriander leaves, onions. It all feels like it was made moments before, and probably was.

Firm and nutty kala chana (black chickpeas - my favourite form of this pulse and incidentally, my preferred choice when making humous) braised over time with onion and mango powder was an earthy, wholesome bowl of texture and flavour (£4.50). A yellow daal cooked with curry leaves and garlic, was thick enough to hold its form when spooned onto a plate (£4), the bowl quickly excavated with the help of warm parathas and naan making up the bread selection (£4.50).

* these portions include three pieces - we were given two (as seen in the photos) as were sampling many dishes for the purpose of the review.

Opaque hunks of coley spiked with mustard seeds and fenugreek was great (£8.50), with basmati assisting the mopping of the sauce. The kullia stew of lamb and turnip was arrestingly aromatic, with sweet and slightly translucent hunks of root veg, flaking meat, bones to suck on, and the sort of gravy cleared so completely, kitchen staff may well have wondered if they had put anything in the bowl in the first place (£7.50).

For a sweet close, there are a handful of traditional desserts - chilled rice pudding with cardamom, buttery semolina, and gajar ka halwa - a very nicely done warm and creamy amalgamation of grated carrot, milk and sugar (not too much) topped with pistachios (£3.50). You won’t go far wrong with ice creams or sorbets either - pistachio intensely represented, mango fruity and refreshing (£3). 

I’m yet to mention I worked 30 seconds walk from Zumbura from the day it opened in November last year until I left that job in March this year. Colleagues tried it, but I never got round to paying a visit. Lost time, of which I will be making up for.

This is a great neighbourhood local offering something quite different to the rest of the Indian dining scene - finally the sort of Indian restaurant food you really could eat every day.

Liked lots: the completely different feel to other Indian restaurant in all aspects, wonderful staff
Liked less: I'll get back to you
Good for: eating great Indian without the associated ghee-laden self-loathing

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

Zumbura on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Sunday, 25 May 2014

JAPAN: tsukiji fish market tuna auction - 10 FAQ's answered

The relationship the Japanese have with the sea is deep, intimate and expressed through their culture - The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai is a striking example. It is also a farm of the deep - as my Kyoto food-tour guide informed me whilst I tucked into a glossy pile of hijiki (a sea vegetable found on rocks), “the Japanese are very good at harvesting things from the ocean”.

Couple this with the main source of protein in Japanese cuisine being from fish, along with the far-reaching presence of water found in and around the country (it’s an archipalegio of 6852 islands), few would be surprised to find the world’s biggest fish and seafood market in Tokyo - Tsukiji Fish Market.

2000 tonnes of nature’s wriggling and iridescent bounty - hauled from all corners of the world’s vast waters - pass through the market's 80-year-old halls each day. Dark claw-bound lobsters, prickly sea urchins with silky innards, boxes of writhing eels, fish eggs and fish heads, hunks of pristine steaks, minute spring-time baby sardines, giant scallop shells prised open, tiny tight clams, king crabs the size of dogs, mountains of shimmering whitebait, livers of monkfish, rippling stingray, and every unidentifiable and alien species in between. All that, and not the slightest whiff of fish.

From the encyclopedia of sea-dwelling consumables sold in Tsukiji, the most prized catch is that of maguro (tuna). So valuable is this beast, trade of hauls take place through auctions held shortly after the market opens in the small hours of the morning.

This article aims to provide the insight and information you need to successfully witness this unique spectacle.

1) What’s all the fuss about?

Tunas are big and profitable. The meaty flesh is prized for use in sushi and as sashimi, and the most lucrative cut is from the fatty belly, otoro. These fish put on weight over winter to see them through the cold months, and the extra fat is what raises the stakes at the time of auction. 

Every year, on the first Saturday in January, Japan makes a grand statement to the global fishing community by putting an exorbitant price on the head of a single bluefin tuna. The first auction of 2013 saw a 489 pound bluefin caught off northeastern Japan sell for a record of £1.09m to the president of a restaurant chain.

Stocks of these majestic beauties are depleting worldwide amid the strong demand for sushi and sashimi. In addition, Tsukiji Market in its present form will soon be no more. The city has plans to spend $4.5 billion to relocate it to a modern, climate-controlled distribution center on a manufactured island by spring 2016 as part of a broader face-lift Tokyo is planning before the 2020 Olympics. This will bring not only the loss of an historic marketplace, but also another blow to a vanishing way of life. 

Combine these factors, and the chance to witness one of the great food shows on earth (and a glimpse into the old, quaint way of Japan) is dwindling.

2) I’m sold. What days can I go?

Tsukiji Fish Market is not open every day. I’ve heard tales of people walking for an hour from their hotel only to curse into the dark morning once they realised it was shut. As a general rule, it’s closed every Sunday, a lot of Wednesdays and Bank Holidays. But there are a few other closed days dotted about. 

Check the Tsukiji Fish Market 2014 Calendar before you set the alarm - you want a day that’s white. Note that the rows of days for each month go from Sun (left) - Sat (right). 

2) How do I get there?

The time of day at which you’ll be moving about town in order to get to the market early enough for a chance of seeing the auction, is a time no sane being would choose to be awake. This means public transport (buses and subway) will not be running. 

You will either need to walk or take a taxi. When staying in Tokyo, you may want to strategically select a hotel close by for this reason.

3) How much is it?

Entirely free. All credit to the market for keeping it this way - they could easily charge and people would still come.

4) Ok hit me - what time do I have to be there?

You’ve no doubt heard it’s an early start. But I’ll bet you it’s earlier than you think. 

On April 10th this year, my partner and I turned up at 4am. We had done much research beforehand, and the unanimous advice suggested 4am was a safe bet. 

That information is now out of date.

“No, it’s finished. Tuna auction finished. People here 3am!” was the response we got from the security guard, fervently tapping his watch. Bleary eyed and heavy-hearted, we realised he was trying to tell us the 120 people quota (more on that later) had already been met, and that people had started queuing from 3am. Even though the auction itself had yet to start, we were too late.

Undeterred, we returned the following morning and - just to be sure - arrived at 2.50am. There was a single soul before us. He had also met the same sorry fate we had the previous day and was back for a second attempt, but had arrived at 5am on his first go - practically closing time in tuna auction terms.

More people soon followed and by about 3.30 - 3.40 the full quota was met and we were hearded indoors.

I suspect that because the market is soon to leave this historic site, the number of people eager to witness the auction before it does is rising, resulting in a need to get in the queue earlier than resources report. It was also April - a popular month to visit Japan (because of the cherry blossom). My general thought is, if you’re going to get up at such an ungodly hour anyway, you may as well make sure it’s worthwhile. Aim to get there at 3am, 3.15am the latest.

5) The market is a big place - where do I need to go?

Don’t make the mistake we did on our first attempt and enter the Main Gate, walk through the entirety of the market (risking life and limb among the speeding electronic carts), whilst wailing ‘maguro auction??’ to any friendly face we came across.

You need to make your way to the registration desk - this is at the Fish Information Centre by the Kachidoki Gate entrance (by the Kachidoki bridge) and is the top left corner of the market map below, marked by ‘You are here’. This is actually the east corner of the market (note the orientation of the map indicated by the compass at the top right). Walk around the outside of the market to get to it, not through it - it will be quicker and easier.

Here is another map of Tsukiji Market which includes some of the surrounding roads.


6) What are the waiting times like?

In a word - long. 

First, there’s waiting in the queue. This is outside with no cover - bring an umbrella if it’s raining and warm clothing if it’s cold. You’re waiting for the number of people to reach 120 - that’s when they’ll allow you inside. As I mentioned earlier, this happened at around 3.30 - 3.40am for our visit. Anyone that arrives after 120 people have been counted will be turned away, whatever time that may be.  

The 120 people are split into two groups - each handed a different colour vest that must be kept on at all times. This makes a lot of sense - you’re ushered by the guards to the auction area (which is a little walk away from the waiting room), through market traders and tourists alike, the latter of which could easily merge into the group (having skipped the waiting slog everyone else endured) if it weren’t for the vests.

The vests also determine the two different auction viewing times - the first 60 people are let in at 5.25am. The second 60 at 5.50am. Both viewing periods are for 25 minutes.

So, unfortunately, that works out as a further two hour or so wait (or longer if you’re in the second group), before you get to see any maguro. I brought a tablet and got through a lot of photo editing in that time, so managed to put it to good use. I’d advise doing something similar, or aim for a kip.

7) That’s a long time - any insight on the waiting room?

Head straight for a wall. There are no chairs, everyone ends up sitting on the floor as soon as their legs give in, and it really helps if you have something to lean back on. You’ll be packed in quite tightly too - the guards will encourage you to shuffle up. It’s bright in there, so bring sunglasses or a hat if you want to catch a bit of shut-eye.

As for food, no one was searched on entry so do bring snacks to keep you going if you need it, even though the signs say no food or drink. I think there were some vending machines in there. Several cans of iced coffee seemed to be the fuel of choice.

Music and headphones are a good shout - there is a George Orwell ‘1984’ style video playing on loop for the whole duration droning on about how you can’t make any noise in the auction area, wave your hands, take flash photography, be drunk etc. Try not to punch the TV.

8) What happens during the tuna auction?

When 5.25am and 5.50am eventually come around, the group of sixty are lead by a guard through weaving electronic carts and traders, to the tuna auction area. 

The room is lined with rows of magnificent tuna torsos of varying sizes, but all large, and the group stand in a cordoned off area. Interestingly, this is when I learnt these fish are often frozen - necessary for them to keep if hauled and shipped from the other side of the globe. Tail-ends are half severed to expose flesh for scrutiny by the potential bidders; torches are shined, shreds torn off and rubbed between fingertips, and pick axes taken to the carcasses in order to gauge the level of fat and quality of meat.

Once inspections have been made, the auctions begin, several running simultaneously. The auctioneer raises his hands as though preaching, with a chant-like cacophony of noise and bells. Buyers discreetly close fingers across their palms to communicate a bid. When sold, information is painted in red onto the frozen fish, the torso then dragged out of the scene by a man with a hook.

Traders go about this commerce entirely oblivious to the tourist group (they must be so used to them being there), so it’s an authentic glimpse into the unique nature of this business.

Here's a short video I took of the scene:

9) What can I do after?

Guide books and internet sites will suggest having breakfast at one of the sushi restaurants within the market “for the freshest sushi in the world”.

We forwent this recommendation in favour of getting back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep so as not to ruin the carefully adjusted hours of wakefullness post jetlag. There is no way I can last a full day after a 2am wake-up call.

Instead, we had our first meal of the day at around 11am down the road at the excellent Kyubey (more information on that in my 10 Things to Eat in Tokyo post) with equally fresh produce but without the hoardes of tourists.

To prevent accidents and tourists from interfering with the fluid trade within the market, the wholesale area (with all the stalls of fish on display) is only open from 9am, after the peak hours of business have passed. If you finish the auction at 6 - 6.30, follow it with breakfast somewhere close-by (further afield will not be open at this time), you may just finish in time for a 9am market stroll.

There is also the outer market located adjacent to the inner market, which caters to the public rather than wholesale commerce. Here you’ll find a few blocks of small retail shops and the sushi restaurants crowded along the narrow lines. This is accessible any time the market as a whole is open.

10) Is it worth it?

Whilst queuing for tourist-targeted activities usually goes against what I’m happy to endure (especially so early in the morning), this spectacle is quite different from others, and won’t be around in this form forever.

The 120 people quota per day - whilst scuppering the plans of those who arrive late - is in fact a welcome restriction once you’ve made it into a vest. It means you get a clear view of the auctions (taking place either side of the cordoned off area) and can experience it in comfort. There won’t be any craning of necks or a need to elbow people out of the way and as mentioned before, it's completely free.

Sacrificing a few hours sleep to witness something so central to Japanese culture is worth it in my book. 

Go forth and seek the majestic mugaro.

Related articles:
JAPAN: onsen etiquette - a guide to taking a traditional public (and naked) bath
JAPAN: 10 things to eat in Tokyo
JAPAN: tea ceremony in Kyoto

Afiyet olsun.

chakra, notting hill - review

Many a cow sacrificed itself to kit out Chakra in Notting Hill. Whilst there is an expected absence of beef on the menu, there is a strong bovine presence; leather covered tables, sunken cream leather chairs and dimpled leather banquets, padded leather walls - there’s potential to moonlight as a sectioning ward. 

The space does initially feel like someone went wild at the everlasting DFS sales. The off-white colour scheme is one most restaurateurs would run a mile from, particularly for a cuisine with staining powers that would render even the most concentrated dose of Vanish as redundant. 

But along with the shimmering chandeliers, classy cocktails, well-drilled waiting staff, and clientele that boasts a few celebrities, it packages very nicely as an up-market and lavish dining destination set in an affluent part of town.

Owned by Andy Varma also acting as executive chef (having previously launched the now closed Varma in Chelsea), the menu aims to bring the traditions of the Maharajah kitchen to diners. The atmosphere encourages customers to come in, sit a while, and take their time; seating is just about the most comfortable I’ve come across in a restaurant, if you’re partial to feeling like you’re in a living room whilst eating.

All tables were presented with small bites of delicately spiced red kidney bean kebab with good texture, and a complimentary three-tiered assembly of vessels housing chutney and fresh, crisp poppadoms scattered with cumin seeds.

Khumb bharwa received immediate approval from our waitress, “They’re one of my favourite things on the menu” - buttons stuffed with cool paneer and potato, spiked with sweet pomegranate and coated in a vibrant yoghurt marinade (£9.95).

Smoked Gressingham duck breast rolled in spices - the meat relaxed by the tenderising qualities found in papaya - was quite spectacular. A texture and richness in iron similar to chicken liver (which I adore) - smooth and gamey and with little bits of char that caught the heat. The accompanying salad was entirely superfluous, but they’re difficult to get away from in Indian restaurants. But that duck was great (£13.95).

In the same breath, patiala chaap lamb chops that had spent valuable time wallowing in a lemon, yoghurt and garam masala marinade with presence of cardamom, were, simply put, the best texture of this cut I have encountered. It’s they’re signature dish and they’re proud of it:

“We call them the second best lamb chops in London.”

“Who is the first?”

“Well we think it’s us, but we can’t say we’re the first.”

The modesty. Meat soft enough to make molars an entirely unnecessary accessory in the endeavour of eating them (£14.50).

When you’re on such a good red meat roll, it’s difficult to stop. Using a recipe from Aminabad in Lucknow, flattened patties of venison galouti kebabs with chilli, garlic and ginger were as pleasing between the teeth as they were on the taste buds (£11.50). Parcels packed with flavour, more softness.

Filaments of Rajastan-inspired lightly battered and fried okra were salty, well spiced and supremely crisp, exposed seeds a little puffed up from the heat. Sporting a flourish of mango powder and roasted aromatic carom seeds, they were impossible to leave alone. Someone needs to package these and sell them with cold beer - I can think of few better things to snack on (£4.75 / £9.95).

A luxurious black daal cooked long and low, finished with cream and fenugreek (£4.75 / £8.50) was a delight with butter paratha (£3.50). A bowl of tandoori roasted and pureed aubergine cooked down with ginger and onions (£4.95 / £9.50) had us dragging the mush up the sides, scooped up in torn bits of peshwari naan (£3) and popped into mouths.

The food here was more than pleasing, with a particularly favourable nod towards the meat dishes. My one gripe is the price point. Some things feel expensive for the volume you receive. The chops were indeed magnificent, but £14.50 for two small ones is a lot. A tenner for five little stuffed mushrooms is a lot. As is three quarter slices of paratha for £3.50 and a bowl of raita for £5.50.

Notting Hill isn’t my local neighbourhood. If it was, it would probably mean my financial circumstances would be such that I’d barely notice the optimistic prices. And it seems this is the case for those who are locals.

On arrival at 1pm on Sunday there was one couple seated, soon followed by the well-to-do - more couples, groups of friends, Indian families. I suspect they’ve been before, and none seemed deterred by the prices. I suppose business is all about knowing your market and something is only worth what others are willing to pay for it. Whilst an outsider of the well-heeled Notting Hill elite may feel it's expensive here, it seems to be appropriate for its location.

There is undoubtebly good cooking taking place in Chakra’s kitchens. If you’ve got the pockets for it, it’s certainly a worthy visit as part of London’s Indian dining scene.

Liked lots: the way the kitchen has with red meat, Rajastani okra fries, very good service, they do a very pleasant lychee and mint mojito that isn’t too sweet
Likes less: it feels expensive compared to other Indian restaurants of a similar caliber
Good for: having a splurge and enjoying a good meal whilst doing so

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

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

Chakra on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Monday, 19 May 2014

chiltern firehouse, marylebone - review

I babysat my six-year-old cousin the other day and in doing so, treated myself - I mean her - to a rerun of the Disney modern-classic, Ratatouille. There’s a great scene where - after being asked if he knew what he’d like to eat that evening - the imperious and acerbic food critic, Anton Ego, hisses a response that leaves the waiter cowering behind his silver tray:

“Yes, I think I do. After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?”

(You haven’t watched Ratatouille? Oh, you must.)

A cynical response, but one I couldn't shift from my mind throughout the meal at Chiltern Firehouse.

Anyone who is anyone (and a lot of people who are no one) have been paraded and snapped at Chiltern since its opening in the new André Balazs hotel in February. It’s won Tatler’s Restaurant of the Year (after being open for just three months; how that even makes sense I'm yet to figure out), has been fawned over by almost everyone who has visited (national critics included), and is so hot on the celebrity front that the Daily Mail Online Showbiz column could dedicate a whole section to it.

I - as well as everyone else, I’m sure - went in with high expectations. Some were met, others were very far off.

One thing that is indisputable is the splendour of the place - it is achingly beautiful. “Industrial Parisian chic, I’d call this”, my interior designer companion cooed. Who did this, it’s excellent - I want to work with them”. Studio KO did, and a full-hearted bravo to them - it’s exquisite.

Also indisputable, is the calibre of clientèle. “There are a lot of hot guys in here - he’s been sitting on his own for ages, I wonder if he’s single”A couple of tango-tastic Made in Chelsea stars aside, the crowd was cool and trendy and more than easy on the eye.

The other favourable point of note are the staff. They offered to take snaps of us hanging off the wine corridor ladders so we could post them on social media and gloat about being at the hottest place in town. “I won’t take one, I’ll take ten!” enthused the Maitr’d, in her baby pink jump suit.

The cute waiters kept giving us twinkling winks as we scuttled through round the back and descended (and descended) to the toilets (close to the centre of the earth, I think), which had a secret door past the cubicles that lead out through a slick basement / outdoor area where people were flirting, smoking and enjoying negronis in the heat of the evening.

Let there be no mistaking, we enjoyed the physicality of the place immensely - the aesthetics (of everything and everyone), the feel, the background jazz playing, the atmosphere. We stayed until late, well after our meal. It’s an outstanding spot for classy and on-trend socialising - the vibe is spot on. 

But the overriding feel is that people are going for the association, not for the food. Most of the girls don’t look like they’ve had more than half a ham sandwich since puberty, and I saw couples where only the man was eating - one of those places. Many came in just to have a drink - with no intention to eat - to say they've at least been, I suspect.

I could say the food was wasted on this crowd, but I wouldn't mean it.

And so, to the food. It started off on a solid foot, from the page of while-you-wait type bites. Cool and crunchy inverted florets of cauliflower sitting in a spiced truffle paste were good (£5). Crab-stuffed donuts with a dusting of crab coral were soft and, you know - also good (£6).

Then to the saving-grace of the night, the starters, which were actually very good. My partner’s steak tartare induced a bout of food envy. The chopped beef moulded into a neat mound, all glistening and glorious once mixed with egg yolk (patiently sitting atop, waiting to breach), diced pickles, shallots, radishes, and a chipotle ‘Firehouse’ sauce (£12).

But then we glanced over at my barley and oat risotto with nettles and crisped slithers of artichoke that looked like someone had scooped up the essence of spring from a meadow with a butterfly net and arranged it on my plate. Incredibly intense green liquid pooling in the gaps my fork left, dark lilac borage flowers, and a splendid consistency (£11).

Chargrilled Iberico pork with roasted garlic and collard greens had become that fateful state of requiring too much effort to chew. It needed more char, perhaps a crust - something to help the molars do their job. The other bits on the plate were alright (£29). My companion quite enjoyed it, but wasn't floored, expecting more what with Mendes in the kitchen.

She really didn't care for the spring lamb with minted broad beans, radishes and goat’s curd (gave it 4/10 - harsh). The texture of it was more appealing to me compared to the pork, but the thick layer of fat was neither crispy nor engaging on the tongue, so it was left. The thin sauce slopped about, making the dish look untidy on delivery. The best thing on that plate was the rest of it (£30).

The maple-bourbon sweet potato mash was a divisive presence. I found it tooth-aching and akin to puréed carrot baby food. She - who does not normally have a sweet tooth - loved it, spooning up the whole lot. I left her to it after a couple of goes (£5). Purple sprouting broccoli was fine (£5).

I longed for fireworks at dessert. We got sparklers, and mine was damp. 

Frozen apple panna cotta with shiso leaf granité and diced meringue looked fun, like the hump of a snail poking out of moss. Flavour combinations were interesting, with little limpid cubes of intense apple flavour adding some tang (£9).

The clementine custard inside my citrus tarte with sesame sponge was the best thing on the plate, both sweet and tart. But there was the same torched meringe as on the other dessert, making them look similar. And the piped peaks had no form - they were too soft. There was also something else white and wobbly with the texture of tofu (and about the same amount of flavour), which is divisive in itself. I didn’t clear it (£9).

A combination of no bread and not finishing everything I ordered meant that after another couple of (might I say, excellent) cocktails, I had little choice but to slip through the golden arches for some nuggets on the way to the tube, despite (recoiling from) the £85 bill; it was the above, plus an aperitivo and glass of wine each. 

On the note of cost, it’s a lot. My middle-range meals in London, with wine, usually come in at around £60 (many of those Michelin) - this bill made me flinch. It feels overpriced. What is it that I’m paying for exactly? Oh yes, the crowd.

Nuno was there, he came over and asked how it was - our responses noticeably gushed about the gorgeousness of the room and how busy it was, rather than the food. He's very sweet, with his floppy side-fringe. He was swamped by guests as he moved through the room, shaking his hand and congratulating him on the place. The waiter got some menus signed by him for me - I forgot to take them.

A gorgeous hang-out with gorgeous people and a stirling bar that just happens to do good food, Chiltern is. A very good restaurant in its own right, it is not; it's fallen victim to its own "puffery". There are just too many other places that consistently serve great food in wonderful environments at more accessible price points, for me to eat here again.

But I will definitely return for a drink, to bask in the splendour of the place and enjoy another Bella Sophia aperitivo, if nothing else.

Liked lots: the building and its interiors, the starters, staff, great aperitivos at reasonable prices, cracking cocktails
Liked less: fanfare, press, permanent paparazzi based at the entrance with the flash of their lights visible from inside, price point
Good for: sheep following, leaving peckish and a bit disappointed

My rating: 3/5

Afiyet olsun.

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