Wednesday, 30 July 2014

forge bar, bank - review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

Forge Bar on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Friday, 25 July 2014

lima floral, covent garden - review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liked lots: ceviche, ceviche, ceviche

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

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

Lima Floral on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

fischer's, marylebone - review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Fischer's on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Thursday, 10 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

Le Relais de Venise L'entrecôte on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

Monday, 7 July 2014

the palomar, soho - review

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

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

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

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

“So I made sure I lived south.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L'chaim to that.

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

My rating: 4/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

The Palomar on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

brasserie zédel, soho - review

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

Hands up, I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

arabica bar & kitchen, borough market - review

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

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

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

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

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

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

We of course, cleared the lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

Arabica Bar and Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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