Tuesday, 21 March 2017
A trip to the Berkshire countryside on the weekend demonstrated both the myriad of reasons in favour of leaving the London (comfort) Zones for lunch, and a good number of those against. As we happened to be in Maidenhead with plenty of time before our booking, we thought it might be a good idea (spoiler: it wasn't) to try and squeeze in a quick pint at charming 14th centry pub the Bell Inn, in Waltham St Lawrence. What we weren't to know was that for whatever reason this particular pub was chosen as the end stop of a mass outing from about 1,000 cyclists, all simultaneously in need of food and drink and seemingly quite happy to queue for half an hour for both, which turned our "quiet pint" into a stressful struggle for space and a desperate 5-minute beer gulp.
None of that is anyone's fault, of course, but it did mean that after being asked for £15 for the 2-minute taxi ride between the Bell Inn to the Beehive in White Waltham, we weren't in the mood for charity. Apparently it was because he'd "had to go to Maidenhead and come back again" - a set of circumstances that you wouldn't think would be too far beyond the remit of a taxi in Maidenhead, but we were getting increasingly close to lunch and increasingly keen to start the day afresh, and so reluctantly paid up.
That we ended up enjoying lunch as much as we did, then, is thanks entirely to the welcome and service at the Beehive from surely one of the friendliest and most capable front of houses in the home counties, and of course also to the food served there, an embrace of modern British gastropub cooking that's worth any amount of travel hassle. It began, as such things often do, with house bread, mini crusty loaves with an interesting salty, yeasty glaze (Marmite?) that meant it was almost impossible to not finish off in the space of a few seconds.
The Beehive Scotch Egg is a fine example indeed - runny-yolk quail's egg surrounded by boldly seasoned pork and crisply-fried breadcrumbs. Delicate and balanced, with no one part overwhelming another, it would do very well in the annual Young's Scotch Egg Challenge, I'm sure, if they decided to enter next year. And I very much hope they do.
Smoked eel salad with bacon and quail's eggs was spotted (not by me of course, by my friend) as being very similar to something Rowley Leigh used to do at Kensington Place, and features in ‘Week in Week Out’ by Simon Hopkinson, which makes sense as chef Dominic Chapman is an alumnus of that college. It was lovely, too - salt and crunch from the bacon and croutons, the soft pieces of eel packing a huge smoky flavour, and then underneath it all a beurre blanc, sharp and richly satisfying. If only all salads were this good.
The rabbit filling of this "lasagne" unfortunately suffered slightly from underseasoning, which is a shame because the pasta was a good firm-yet-silky texture and the little wild wood blewit mushrooms packed a strong flavour. There wasn't much sign of the advertised chervil - some miniscule pieces scattered on top seemed to be the grand total of their contribution - but even so, it was a decent, comforting starter.
Halibut is a fish that even in less capable hands can still impress with its dense, meaty flesh and rich flavour, but when it's prepared by an expert, like at the Beehive, it really sings. This really was a beautiful bit of seafood, with its bright-white flesh and delicate crisp skin, and the accompanying samphire, mussels and brown shrimp all added to the fine, tried-and-tested formula. The jury's perhaps out on what role cherry tomatoes really needed to play, but this was a minor niggle.
Venison came with one of those reduced sauces that I always lose my mind over. It's mainly because they taste incredible, but I think it's also because I know they're a labour of love to make, taking many hours of reducing and skimming and waiting, and requiring - for the best examples - lots of good veal bones, port and Madeira. The fact that underneath this Sauce Of Wonder the venison itself was only OK (a tad dry, and underpowered flavour-wise) was a mere distraction - this dish was all about soaking up the house mash (buttery and smooth, and seasoned perfectly) in the sauce and savouring every sticky, savoury mouthful.
It felt like the dessert offering at the Beehive had a little less attention paid to it than the savoury courses, but there was still plenty to enjoy in this rice pudding with jam doughnuts. You'd have to be a pretty difficult individual not to enjoy warm rice pudding and fresh jam doughnuts.
Baked Alaska was pleasant, but unremarkable to the point of plain. Also I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the vanilla ice cream in the centre just tasted very much like the texture and taste of shop-bought, but was in fact was made in-house...
So, desserts not worth getting ripped off by a taxi driver and battling through 1,000 cyclists for, then. But most of the rest of it really was, and we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch in this bright and friendly little spot in rural Berkshire. It's worth mentioning again the front of house, who matched our courses with some nice wines (one of which, a Chablis, was left over from a party the night before and offered free of charge), brought everything in good time and in good humour, and basically gave a masterclass in service. And as much as I like to think I'm not swayed by such things, it really is the whole package you come to places like the Beehive for - great food, yes, but also an atmosphere of warm, open generosity.
And I have one more reason to appreciate our server at the Beehive. After hearing our story about corrupt taxi drivers, she offered the magic words "oh, we have Uber here now!" and with that, all our problems were solved. After spending £30 to get there, the ride back to Maidenhead cost £6.90. There's never been a better time to head out west of a weekend.
Friday, 17 March 2017
If you were ever coming to this blog looking for informed insight or intelligent food discussion, well you were always on a hiding to nothing. But I like to think that my exposure to the vast numbers of British, French, Spanish and Indian restaurants in London has meant at least I stand a better chance of saying something useful about those cuisines, even if occasionally just by accident, than most others. I'm getting better at Sichuan, I'm OK at Mexican, I can just about get away with stringing a few words together on Vietnamese or Thai, but Burmese?
But I can't feel too self-conscious about the fact I knew next to nothing about Burmese food before stepping foot into Lahpet because, let's face it, there aren't too many Burmese food experts knocking around anywhere outside Burma. Thanks to a military dictatorship and decades of global political isolation, this huge SE Asian country is only just now becoming known to the world, and the delights (or otherwise) of Burmese cuisine has yet to filter through to Western consciousness. The practical upshot of which is that I can be even more blithely ignorant than usual without feeling even the least bit guilty about it.
Lahpet, then, is a Burmese restaurant in London Fields, just over the road from where Som Saa did its own SE Asian thing all those years ago. It is unfortunately cursed with huge communal tables - enough to strike the fear of God into this particular diner - but fortunately on a quiet Wednesday night we had plenty of space to ourselves and didn't have to share any personal space. The menu is short, and not too baffling - a few words here and there that didn't mean much but generally not too indimidating to a Burmese food newcomer (which will be more or less everyone) and fairly keenly priced.
We ordered a couple of "fritters", two mains and - because they sounded interesting - all the sides. They offered to bring the "sun dried anchovies" side first, as they thought they would make a good snack. They sort of did - dry, crisp, with a bit of a chilli kick and plenty of umami flavour - but the pieces of anchovy were very tiny and quite difficult to scoop up, and felt more of a dressing or topping than a snack in their own right.
Fritters were fine but fairly unmemorable. Neither the triangles of fried tofu or the kidney bean "Mandalay" tasted of a great deal, and the provided tamarind sauce was underpowered and too thin to cling to the fritters when dipped in. Nice textures, but not much else.
Fortunately, the tea leaf salad was well worth the effort. Full of crunch and colour, shot through with Spanish-style dry-fried broad beans and sesame seeds, it would be vibrant and rewarding even without the tea leaf itself, which was pickled or fermented in some way as to produce an incredibly satisfying complex flavour. If this is Burmese cuisine, then consider me a fan.
Mains as of themselves were good - very good, in fact - but we could have probably done with a bit more guidance on ordering. I liked the look of the "hake masala" on paper, and enjoyed it very much in reality, the first being firm and meaty (if a tad on the dry side), and the masala sauce thick and rich. It all felt vaguely Indian, vaguely Malaysian, which I suppose is understandable given Burmese geographic borders.
Unfortunately, in their wisdom Lahpet advised us to order the coconut chicken noodles as our second main, which turned out to be dressed in exactly the same thick masala sauce as the hake. And despite the chicken itself being cooked perfectly well and a nice contrast between the normal wet noodles in the sauce and some crunchy dried noodles on the side of the bowl, eating both mains at the same time just ended up being a bit... samey. Maybe all of the Lahpet main courses come in the same sauce - maybe it's a Burmese thing. But if not, it's a strange thing to deliberately suggest.
And even stranger was the arrival of a second "side", another small sample of dried seafood (shrimp this time though the flavour wasn't markedly different), presented in another glass ashtray, defying use or explanation. If there was something I should have been doing with my two bowls of seafood crackling other than scooping them into my mouth with a slightly baffled expression on my face then, well, nobody made it obvious.
We didn't stay for "deserts" (sic) - the homemade ice creams sounded intriguing but they'll have to wait for another time. Because - and this may come as a bit of a surprise given my moaning above - I think I probably will be back to Lahpet. Despite the awkward way it was served and explained, there was something genuinely new going on here, perhaps not enough to herald a Burmese revolution in London but certainly enough to indicate that this is a cuisine that will impress more and more as it finds its feet - and an audience. As for the thorny question of authenticity, who knows - perhaps I'll leave it to actual experts like Burmese cookbook author MiMi Aye to have a look at the menu above and see how closely it represents anything from the home country. Meantime, I'll scurry back to my comfort zone and leave them to it. Have the salad. It's nice.
Thursday, 9 March 2017
Well, here we are again. You'll know the score by now - once a year I open my next restaurant review to public vote. What began as a naive experiment to engage my readership in the blog decision-making process soon descended into what internet discussions always descend into - trolling, sadism, and trips to Croydon. So I won't pretend I'm expecting anything less than the dregs of the country's eating establishments to be offered up as personalised torture instruments this year - do your bloody worst. I can take it. I think.
I've got you started by entering a few places I'd actually like to eat at, for you to completely ignore.
The rules again:
1. I can't have been to the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)
2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)
3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.
EDIT: Despite Dans le Noir giving it a run for its money, seems the winner is Toby Carvery, South Croydon. Why is it always Croydon? Watch this space for a review, coming soon.
Wednesday, 8 March 2017
A hypothetical for you. You're a reasonably successful neighbourhood restaurant with a good few years of solid reviews and solid custom behind you. Business is doing OK, but you need a bit of a brand refresh to get people talking about you again, to bump you up the restaurant charts and remind the local population you're still going, and cooking good food. Do you:
a) Hire a good PR firm to send out a carefully-crafted press-release, put on a keenly-priced lunchtime menu to attract the local daytime custom, and perhaps think about an early evening special or no-corkage Monday to energize the post-work commuter crowd?
b) Change the name of your restaurant to something completely un-memorable and totally un-Googleable and hope for the best?
Abbeville Kitchen had been going since 2011 and I don't begrudge them at all their need for a bit of a rebrand, but why on earth "May the Fifteenth"? Have you ever tried Googling a restaurant that shares its name with a calendar date? It's fairly pointless, let me tell you. It may be a great name for a governmental advisory body or clandestine revolutionary group, but for somewhere that actually wants its purpose to be known, and crucially be found by the general public, not so much.
Anyway, May the Fifteenth it is, and the good news is, if you can find it (hint: it's at 47 Abbeville Road, in the posh, Tube-less bit of Clapham), not much other than the name has changed. It's still a rustic, gastropubby space with a good wine list, a nice line in martinis (frozen glasses, don't you know, and only £8 a pop) and obliging, efficient staff. I'd start with a portion of house bread (sourdough) and a plate of expertly-chosen charcuterie framing a bowl of grassy-green olive oil.
Watercress and garlic soup was rather underseasoned but had a few interesting chunks of, I think, bottarga floating around in it which added to the interest levels a bit. Even so, if you can't season a bowl of soup properly you can't help wondering if it should be on the menu at all.
So, soups aren't their strong point, but there's plenty else on the menu. Roast quail suffered from not a hint of dryness in the flesh, and had a lovely crisp skin. I wonder whether plonking it on the top of a pile of bland roast vegetables was really the best method of presentation, and I'm still of the opinion apple sauce belongs with roast pork, not poultry. But there was a good big slice of sausage in there which packed a good piggy punch, and all said and done £15 is not a lot to pay for this generous mound of food.
Maybe the way to go at May the Fifteenth is the sharing mains. This extraordinary pig's cheek in n'duja dish was all kinds of wonderful, an incredibly satisfying chilli/tomato sauce livened with fresh herbs in which bobbed five or six sausagey, moist chunks of cheek. It came with chips, because there is nothing that isn't better with a side order of chips - especially not chips as good as these, golden brown with a great crunch and smooth interior. This giant pot, warming, generous (of size and flavour) is reason enough to warrant a trip to Clapham by itself; a real classic.
Oh, and someone knows what they're doing with desserts, too. Rhubarb and lemon meringue had some wonderful strong flavours, especially the (presumably forced) rhubarb, a powerful lemon sorbet and a scattering of gently toasted hazelnuts. The kind of dessert that if you can't enjoy, there's just no hope for you.
Plenty to enjoy, then, overall, and I can see myself making very many return trips now I've got their booking page bookmarked and I don't need to Google it again. It's a stupid name for a restaurant, but then, if the most you have to complain about is their SEO score and underseasoned soup, well, you're still doing better than most joints in town. And for those pig's cheeks in n'duja and that rhubarb lemon meringue, I'd put up with a whole lot worse. I wish them all the best, and hope the locals of Clapham Common know how lucky they are.
Tuesday, 7 March 2017
I think it's possible to acknowledge the importance of fiercely experimental, bleeding-edge restaurant culture whilst at the same time retaining a healthy scepticism about the reality of it. When I think about the most groundbreaking meals I've had over the time I've been writing this blog (ten years now, incredibly) and the most enjoyable, well, the crossover area in the Venn diagram is fairly small. For every l'Enclume, which took modern British cuisine into new directions while still remaining enjoyable, there's an El Bulli, shock-effect food that never asked itself "just because we can, do we really think we should?".
From a distance, The Man Behind The Curtain seems like the kind of self-consciously "edgy" concept that should trigger alarm bells. Not just the ugly-cool website, the street-art décor, the location on the top floor of a clothes shop in the centre of Leeds like some kind of Primark speakeasy, but all of these things combined does suggest an operation focussing rather more on image and provocative PR than the food on the table. What a relief, then, and a delight, that nothing could be further than the truth - behind the ultra-hip exterior is a kitchen that knows exactly what it's doing, serving food that is that rarest of things - genuinely unlike anything else anywhere in the country.
The innovation started with the very first snack. This kumamoto oyster was dressed with strawberry kimchi, something completely new to me, and I suspect new to planet earth, although I reserve the right to be wrong on that. It was great, the strawberry pickle working really well with the briny oyster and the chilli kicking in as the sweetness dissipated.
There was, of course, the odd bit of wacky tableware. This silver tree had little spoons of raw langoustine in some kind of lime oil nestled amongst its branches, and I enjoyed it very much, although I should say that a friend on the same table got a spoon that had lost its silver plating and couldn't taste much other than an unpleasant fizz of metal. It's all very well using this arty tableware, but you need to know how to keep it...
This bright red mini-burger contained veal sweetbread in XO sauce, with mint, basil and kimchi mayo. The bun was one of those bao-style fluffy rice flour types, perfectly formed and lighter than air, and the Asian flavours within were balanced and distinct. As to why it was bright red, well, I'm not sure, but MBTC's use of unusual colours and textures to subvert expectations of ingredients is something that returned throughout the lunch. I've known chefs who work with a palette of techniques and flavour profiles but never known anyone with an actual palette of colours - Michael O'Hare seems to work a lot with bright reds and greys, colours which don't often exist in nature and therefore somewhat counter-intuitive to feature so prominently in a tasting menu. As I say though, despite all that, it was never less than enjoyable.
This was wagyu beef - pretty high-grade judging by the remarkably light colour (mmm, fatty) - with gordal olives, and topped with transluscent sheets of potato starch. The olive flavour was the perfect foil to the beef, and though it seems obvious now, the more I think about it the more I'm sure I've never had quite this combination before, demonstrating that even the less outré courses were subtly inventive.
More bright reds and greys and 80s pop-art stylings in this next course of spider crab, wonton skin and iberico lardo 'lasagne'. Hiding under a 'Sriracha cracker' (which, perhaps fortunately, didn't taste too much of the garlic-chilli sauce) was an indugently rich mixture of fresh seafood and iberico pork fat, and it either contained some dairy or the 'lasagne' was just a clever nod to the fact that it really tasted like it did. It was - like everything that had come before it - lovely.
I imagine there aren't many chefs who have ever thought to themselves, "I wonder what will happen if I spray-paint some prawns gold?" never mind having the confidence to serve them to paying guests but - incredibly - it didn't feel forced or unsettling at all, in fact they just ended up being the most straightforward element of the dish. Far more notable was the heady malt vinegar 'powder' which seasoned this fillet of cod in squid ink, the matchstick fries turning it all into a mini trip to the chip shop. As I'm sure was deliberate. Many fine dining chefs feel the need to riff on a famous regional dish, and I've had a number of versions of "fish and chips" served in various forms. Sometimes - like the "trip to the chip shop" hot dog invented by the Fat Duck and served at Bubbledogs, it's disgusting. But here there was no heavy-handed use of batter, just a confident bit of fish cooking, lifted with vinegar.
On this strange bit of tableware, resembling somthing from a Salvador Dali painting, were positioned some bitesize chunks of beef shortrib and a selection of three dipping sauces - mustard, coriander and black truffle. I think of all the dishes this was the one that did least for me - the beef was decent but not spectacular, the sauces (especially the truffle) good but they didn't make much sense of the beef, or indeed vice versa. Still, it was hardly a failure, and we all ate it without complaint.
Last of the savoury courses was some chunks of Iberico pork, packing the kind of depth of flavour common to only the very greatest pigs in the world, with something called "charcoal shavings" (which actually didn't taste bitter or burned at all, strangely - more like cereal) and a little pickled boquerone anchovy. My only complaint here, which perhaps carries back through the previous courses as well, is that there wasn't quite enough of it...
...because with no bread to fill up on, and portion sizes barely above a mouthful per dish, I'm afraid to say by the time we were taking receipt of this, the only dessert course, we were all still pretty hungry. This spectacular thing, of course, was fantastic in of itself - white chocolate spray-painted silver (well, why not), hiding a shocking purple lavender ice cream, a kind of cinnamon mousse and something called "potato custard" (just normal custard as far as I could tell, although a very nice custard), all as unusual and imaginative and arty as everything that had come before. There just wasn't quite enough of it all.
So that's why I have to deny the Man Behind The Curtain my very top mark. Perhaps having guests leave wanting more is entirely deliberate - I wouldn't put it past being some aspect of their food-as-art-project approach, some kind of comment on the shortcomings of globalisation and the western liberal model - but I would have liked some bread. Or at least a second dessert course.
That said, the fact remains there is nowhere doing anything remotely like this anywhere in the country, and it was undoubtedly a theatrical and exciting way to spend a few hours of a Saturday. I hesitate to say there's nothing like it in the world, because more well-travelled friends have noted that certain of O'Hare's techniques owe a certain debt to the fine dining scene in the Basque areas of spain - restaurants such as Arzak or Azurmendi who have a similar visual approach. But, well, it's certainly new to me. And I've been around a little while.
At just over £110 a head, as well, for plenty of booze and a couple of clever petits fours (a "cupcake" with edible paper and a liquid-citrus centre, and a salted caramel chocolate with caraway seeds), it is undoubtedly still great value. This perhaps accounts for the fact it took us a full ten months to secure a table (this lunch was booked in May 2016) but full marks to them for not raising their prices, which they surely could have done by now. And I can grumble all I like about portion sizes, but the fact is, the moment it was over I wanted to go and do it all over again. Which is probably all you really need to know. It is, after all said and done, a groundbreaking and uniquely visual restaurant serving futuristic fine dining on the top floor of a clothes shop in Leeds. And you may as well do all you can to get there, because there's certainly never going to be another like it any time soon.