Sunday, 28 September 2014

house of hồ sunday brunch, soho - review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

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

The House of Ho on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

bourne & hollingsworth buildings, clerkenwell - review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly worth poking your head around the door.

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

My rating: 3/5

Afiyet olsun. 

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

Bourne and Hollingsworth Buildings on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 September 2014

picture restaurant, fitzrovia - review

I am not a fan of Oxford Street. I’m not sure anyone who lives in London is really a fan of Oxford Street. It’s a strip of commonplace retailers and awful eateries. It’s full of slack-jawed teenagers, disorientated tourists, and families of four, five, six who feel the need to walk side by side, sweeping the breadth of the pavement with their impenetrable linear formation. How do you propose I get past you? Oh ok, I’ll just step into oncoming traffic. 

Oxford Street harbours the highest readings of pedestrian rage in London (according to the Leyla Kazim School of Science), and along with the evil sibling that is Leicester Square, it is a place for tourists, out-of-towners and where patience goes to die.

So praise be and let us raise our hands in joyous celebration, for the really good eating establishments dotted around this arterial route of misery, that provide respite and shelter from the aimlessly wandering hordes, along with some pretty great eating to go with it. 

Next time you find yourself in Oxford Circus with a grumbling stomach and a waning will to live, face north, walk 5 minutes until you get to Picture Restaurant on Great Portland Street, and feel the stresses and strains of West End shopping slide off your shoulders as you’re greeted by some of the most spot-on service I’ve received in some time, from co-owner and chief of front of house, Tom Slegg.

There are a number of good things going for this place. I’ve already mentioned the handy location and Tom. Then there’s the bargain deal of £35 for a six course tasting menu, with the opportunity to BYO on Monday’s (I’m making my reservation for this as we speak). And if you have a vegetarian in your group that always seems to miss out when the table goes for tasting (there’s always one), fear not. They also have a vegetarian tasting menu, the type even a meat-eater would be happy with.

There’s also an a la carte of plates small enough to permit you ordering four without sounding like a pig (and in fact, it’s what they recommend: from vegetable, fish, meat and desserts), but large enough for one or two to more than suffice for a light lunch should that be the requirement. 

They’re not sharing plates - unless you’re that way inclined - and they don’t come out in whichever freewheeling order the kitchen damn well fancies, but the logical order in which they appear on the menu. These range from £7 to £9 and desserts hover around £4 / £5.

The other good thing about Picture, is what’s going on in the kitchen. Because the food coming from it is more than pleasing.

Grilled and crunchy tenderstem broccoli with cooling goat’s curd, chopped plum tomatoes and the briney piquancy of capers was expertly seasoned (£7). White beans cooked in an almond porridge, with wedges of soft, sweet and slightly tart greengage, slithers of radish, and dollops of herbaceous parsley made for a great combination (£7).

Then there was cod with girolle mushrooms, slightly charred leeks, the firm and sweet crunch from sweetcorn, dressed with a cobnut crust (£9). Sea bream came pan-fried, best friends with firm puy lentils, little cubes of fennel and white turnip, and lifted by dill (£9).

You know a kitchen knows a thing or two when it can present wild boar sausage in a light and summery format. Here, with toasted bulgar wheat, beetroot, endive, and with a lick of very complimentary sweet plum chutney in every forkful (£8). 

And then there was the lamb, good grief. Cooked for hours - who knows how many. An exquisite texture, breaking away in flakes from little more than a hard stare. With merguez sausage, white coco beans and a stuffed tomato. One of those dishes the heart gets a little heavy over when all that remains is the empty plate (£9).

And to dessert. We thought we couldn’t handle one each after three previous plates. But quelle surprise, we managed. A chocolate mousse with blackberries and a scoop of splendid peanut butter ice cream and brittle (£4). And a vanilla panna cotta with an almost ethereal silken texture, with strawberries and gingerbread shards (£4). Neither heavy nor too sweet, both wonderful. 

I like Picture, a lot. It has a whiff of The Dairy about it, with it’s light and bright dishes, seasonality, presentation and execution. And my fan-girl crush on that place is no secret. 

With price points like this, consistent and high dish-quality thanks to chefs Alan Christie and Colin Kelly, a central location and laudable service, there is little, if nothing, to argue with.

Liked lots: service, price points; BYO on Monday’s; all wines available by the glass, carafe or bottle; bread is not made on sight but bought in from Boulangerie de Paris, which is very good
Liked less: if you’re not a fan of perching on bar seating, request a table at the back. Although we were at the bar and it was comfortable
Good for: taking vegetarians, taking your own wine, taking pleasure in a very good meal indeed

My rating: 4/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

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

Picture on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 September 2014

zucca, bermondsey - review

Pardon me for doing so, but I can’t help but make an instant judgement of a restaurant if it chooses to furnish its floor with - carpet. 

Carpet. In a restaurant. In this decade? It just doesn't sit right with me.

I thought carpets in drinking and dining establishments were exclusive to pubs from the set of Coronation Street that hit you with a face full of eau de stale-beer, and godawful clubs like Infernos in Clapham where the carpet smells of VK Apple and bears the stains and odours of years worth of desperate grinding. 

Like bathrooms, carpet does not belong in a restaurant. Why on earth would one choose to have carpet? Ok, for noise absorption. But there must be another way. I’ll make the assumption most restaurants mop their floors at the end of each day. So what happens at Zucca - a daily shampoo?

No doubt this is the clean-freak germ-phobe in me, but as I walked over the threshold and noticed the floor, my nose curled up in a micro expression of ‘ick’.

Let’s raise the eye level and look at the rest of the room. It’s almost identical to the lobby area of my old office building, just with the addition of water glasses, cutlery and the open kitchen. Muted greys and blues, plastic white office-type tables, office-type blinds, grey office-like chairs with the same black mesh at the back we used to have, and of course that carpet. 

And as it was a Thursday lunch time, it was full of men in pastel shirts with suit blazers slung on the back of their chair, and women in smart work attire - so, people from offices. 

I suppose it makes sense. A restaurant that looks like an office is the perfect setting for a lunch meeting, but if I wanted to eat in a corporate environment I would have dined in The City.

I'll stop myself now before I get too sidetracked with something that will always be secondary to the food. Questionable interiors can be overlooked, even entirely disregarded, if what’s coming from the kitchen is very good (poshed-up-prison-canteen
Lyle’s is a great example of this). Except, I’d probably remove the word ‘very’ here.

I like the fact the menu changes frequently in line with what is available and seasonal from Borough Market, and that there are works from featured artists adorning the walls. I also very much favoured the bread which was particularly good - made on site and from scratch, a couple of cubes of pillowy focaccia, a thin slice of something brown, a slice of something white, and a grissini. Perhaps a little meagre for two; I only wish there were more.

‘Zucca’ fritti was a generous pile of deep-fried butternut squash batons which, if were not shared with my dining partner, would be too much of the same thing for one person to clear. The salt crystals were appreciated, but it needed a lick of dip for some lubrication (£6).

Vitello tonnato saw three slices of veal and tuna, both expertly cooked, each nestled atop a mound of mayonnaise featuring the other meat. The tuna mayonnaise was like the fish paste found in those little bottles in Sainsbury’s that I tried in my sandwiches when I was 11, because I felt I needed an alternative for my lunchbox rotation. That's no criticism; I rather liked those sandwiches (£10).

Duck came pink and in long slithers, bisected by an arrangement of pine nuts and parsley - a light and zippy plate (£9). Well-textured pappardelle with bite was coated in the ragu of sweet veal meat (£11 / £16) and the lumache (lumaca is the word for snail in Italian, and so these pasta shapes resemble their shells) with cuttlefish and tomatoes was ok, if not a little ‘fishy’ for want of a better word (£11 / £16).

The remaining gut space was reserved for dolci over secondi, and the chocolate semifreddo with pecan ice cream and caramel sauce was all kinds of right. Parting the slab of frozen mousse with the fork, scooping from the pool of poured-over sauce and finishing with ice cream and a crunchy pecan half was hugely pleasurable on the palate.

There was also a passion fruit cheesecake in a cup which was fine, but it was no semifreddo.

My lunch at Zucca was perfectly adequate, just not especially noteworthy. I felt little of the warmth I associate with the cuisine from both the food and the space. Although, I do feel I need to eat more of their dishes to fully determine if it gets ostracised to the ‘perhaps, if I happen to be in the area’ list.

The restaurant has been a successful stalwart on the Bermondsey Street scene since 2010 and I know a lot of people whose opinion I respect, who wax lyrical about the place. So perhaps, I missed something.

It’s worth noting, the main problem Zucca has is no fault of theirs. They can thank the lofty benchmark for casual Italian dining set by Café Murano, which fed me one of the best lunches I’ve had in forever. Comparison to this unattainable ideal that is now etched in my mind is probably unfair, but I can't help it. I left Café Murano in protest (let me stay until the evening service?) and with a severe case of mentionitis - I couldn’t stop telling everyone about my meal and their blinding cacciuccio. 

So, will I eat at Zucca again any time soon? Perhaps, if I happen to be in the area.

Liked lots: cracking bread, great semifreddo dessert, service
Likes less: the office interior design theme
Good for: business lunches, I suspect

My rating: 3/5

Afiyet olsun.

Zucca on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 September 2014

FRANCE: a postcard from brittany

A few pictures from a weekend spent in Brittany, including the towns of Dinan and Plouagat.

And a lot of rather fabulous food.

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