DOS HERMANOS: GO EVERYWHERE, EAT EVERYTHING

"It's not much but it's ours"

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

LUTYENS: BLUEPRINT CONRAN


















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A few weeks ago, HP came home with a bit o’ beef from Jack O’ Shea. He proudly announced that while it was being cut, he had guessed the weight to within an ounce much to the amazement of London’s celebrity meat cutter.

He’s like that HP. I love him, well like a brother, but there is the element of Rain Man about him when it comes to food as he proved last night as we took our seats in the cavernous dining room of new Conran restaurant, Lutyens.

From behind his menu, all I could hear was

“mumblemumblemumble about 120covers mumblemumblemumble”

I asked the waiter and, after checking with a colleague, he came back and said

“A little over 120 covers, sir”

I told you, Rain Man, bless him.

But, I digress.

Lutyens is the latest enterprise in the new direction of Sir Terence, named in honour of Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, one of Britain’s greatest architects and housed in one of his finest and last buildings, the former Reuters building at the bottom end of Fleet St.

It has all the hallmarks of Sir T with vast amounts of money obviously being spent on the restaurant, the bar and a soon to open private members club in the basement. The kitchen is on show and so too is the raw bar with enough seafood on ice to impress even HP, as he was playing “guess the number of clams”

"mummblemummb35and24and7mummblemummble"

The menu too wont come as any surprise to anyone who has ever eaten chez Terence. It’s decorated with waiters in their finest Frenchie livery and, on the inside, along with the seafood offerings, are enough classic French dishes to make you want to hide a picture of “The Madonna with the big boobies” in a fake sausage.

Knowing that oysters are one of the two things that will kill me (the other being accidentally catching an episode of “Supersizers go…….. on T.V”) HP suggested splitting half a dozen cherrystone clams from Essex.

With places owned and operated by Sir T, the one thing you can always count on is the exemplary quality of the ingredients. So it was with the clams, stunningly fresh and perfectly shucked to retain the juices so many places let drain away.

HP’s snail starter was well priced at £7.50 and comprised half a dozen meaty slitherers with, as it should, a hefty amount of garlic and parsley. As I said before about a similar dish at Bouchon Breton, at its best, it is the sort of unapologetic dish that makes you realise why you love food. Here, although there should be some points deducted for allowing excess garlic and parsley on the dish to burn and make the residue oil bitter, the main event, the snails, were spot on and I stole the shells from HP to suck clean.

It was welcome too to see the return of Coquille St Jacques to a British menu, but less welcome to see what they had done to three superb scallops, which although perfectly cooked were done a disservice by a dry and grainy mashed potato surround and not enough sauce to rectify the situation.

Main courses were an equally mixed bag and strengthened our long held opinion with matters Conran that, the execution of the cooking ranks behind design, service and ingredients. My own choice of suckling pig with apple sauce and crackling was as good as you are likely to find in London. Three thick slices helped along with a little bit of sage through the middle sat on a mound of perfect apple sauce, which retained a sharp bite to cut through the fat. On top, a sliver of perfect crackling that split easily so I could share it with HP.

Where more skill in the cooking was required however, things fell apart quite badly. Veal kidneys had tightened to chewy little bullets and HP prodded at them glumly until one of the staff came to check if all was well in DH world. To their credit they offered, twice, to replace the dish but given that I had wolfed down nearly half of my dish already, HP declined and worked his way though the nuggets of offal declaring that despite the poor cooking, they actually tasted pretty decent.

The sauce with the kidneys was announced as the classic Sauce Diable, which should be laced with lemon juice, black pepper and Cayenne. What we got was little more than a standard and not particularly nice veal demi-glaze that formed a pool around a splodge of unannounced mashed potatoes, which had we known they were coming would have made our side order of frites redundant.

As it were, side dishes, while well priced, were poorly executed. Spinach was acceptable, a tomato and shallot salad was struggling to come up for air in a pool of oil and the aforementioned frites were anaemic and in need of another frying.

The dessert list was a cookie cutter offering that allowed HP to order his inevitable selection of ice cream and me to see what they did with the classic Peach Melba. Again, the ingredients were superb. Raspberries in particular had us fighting to scoop the few we were given from the bowl, but a Peach Melba needs to be served in a less apologetic fashion than the little silver bowl with which I was presented and WHERE was my wafer? Damn them, I had to steal one from HP.

Mint tea and napkin tests were bitch slapped to oblivion by the excellent staff and although I don’t particularly like the new trend of “zonal marking” in service that means you get at least ten different servers during your meal, as long as they don’t mess things up, I can live with it. That never seems to be an issue at Sir T’s places and the staff were well deserving of the service charge that was added to the final bill.

As the name of the posts suggests, apart from a bit of a pun, this is an instantly recognisable Conran opening, great room, great service, top ingredients, adequate if hit and miss execution and a bill at the end that gives you a bit of a shiver. You also get the distinct impression that all the effort has gone into the opening and, as proved with a recent follow up meal at Boundary, this is as good as it’s going to get.

“mummblemumbleGoodasitsgoingtogetmummmble”

Come on HP, let’s get you home to bed.

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WINGS AND THINGS
















HP proved again on Saturday night, budget dining does not have to mean crappy dining.

As usual, he had spent far too much of his time tooling on the internet. However, on this occasion, instead of waking up to an inbox of links to interesting news stories and You Tube clips, I found a mail suggesting that, after his Saturday gym session, I join him for a pint in The Artillery Arms and then for a heapin’ helping of “fried” spicy chicken wings using a recipe he had gleaned from this great blog on that there World Wide Web.

I obtained special dispensation from my intended to indulge in the best part of a pint of Fuller’s Discovery and then flopped on the couch watching TV on Demand while he prepared the meal.

For about £7, he had bought sixteen meaty organic wings from Waitrose and, after jointing them in to three parts, dusting them in seasoned flour and tossing in Frank’s Hot Sauce, had baked them on a rack for an hour, turning once. That much was fairly straightforward but it was the second stage that made these some of the best wings I had tried.

He made a simple glaze out of chilli flakes, garlic, ginger, sugar, soy sauce and rice vinegar, which he reduced together in a pan while the wings were cooking. After they came out of the oven he tossed them in the sauce and let them sit for five minutes so the sauce soaked into the flesh but still left the skin crisp and golden.

The result was a glorious and gloriously messy supper, which with an excellent and simple cabbage, sesame seed, carrot and grain mustard slaw, fed us both for well under £10. The wings fell apart under the slightest tooth pressure and the sauce was hot, spicy, sweet and entirely delicious.

HP matched it with a glass or two of Albarino. Me? Well, being well aware that Sybil would know if I was lying and that she is more than capable of kicking my ass, kept to the orange juice.

Well worth a try. The wings, that is, not kicking my arse

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Monday, June 29, 2009

THE RESTAURANT AT ST PAUL'S CATHEDRAL
















It did not take long for Identita London, a rather grand conference of Italian chefs at Vinopolis, to lose its appeal. It isn't that it was not a beautifully organised event, it was. It’s not that there were not great chefs in attendance, there were, some really top of the tree exponents of the pepper mill waving art (sorry, couldn’t resist)

It was just that, after watching two chefs prepare dishes I would never attempt to recreate at home and then watching Nigel Barden eat them while doing his best to describe them to the audience, I realised that watching people cook is never going to be as interesting to me as eating no matter how enticing the food looked. So, with a few excuses, I slunk out and headed along the South Bank, across The Millennium Bridge and into the welcoming and cool basement of one of London’s great tourist attractions.

The Restaurant at St Paul’s Cathedral opened a little over a month ago and is a collaboration with Harbour & Jones, normally known for corporate catering and now putting their head above the trench to try feeding the likes of you and me. It’s a brave move and one that I suspected had been underpinned by the usual portion control and absence of cooking talent that we experienced recently at The Whitechapel Gallery, but the menu, with its quietly confident offering of British food at least looked harmless enough to provide a decent lunch.

I arrived before they had officially opened and the incredibly friendly staff allowed me to take a seat on the upper section of the split level dining room while I looked and the menu and cooled down with a glass from jug of tap water they brought over.

It is a short menu offering two courses for £16 and three for £20 and once you have got over the frankly quite stupid listing of prices as being in “British Pounds” there are definitely things here you might want to actually eat, increasingly rare these days.

A small bowl of pork scratchings at £2.50, sorry “2 ½ British Pounds” were rock hard and a poor start, tasting as if they had been sitting around for a while. Things improved with a starter of a pie made with Montgomery Cheddar and onions. Portion control was definitely in play here with the pie actually being a small slice from a mother ship of a pie, but while it could have benefited from some piccalilli or chutney rather than the drab leaves, the pie itself was excellent, slightly warm and rich with the taste of the world’s finest cheddar. The less said about serving it on a slice of dead tree the better.

Although the menu carries one meat option, they were obviously not expecting anyone to ever order it. If they had, they would have purchased knives with a cutting edge rather than the silly rounded thing I was given to eat my main course. A shame, as the Barnsley chop I was presented with was as good an example as I have experienced in London, and although that is not saying much (for shame, Butcher & Grill, for shame) the quality of the meat, the size of the chop and the cooking of chef, Candice Webber showed attention to detail.

It came a little more cooked than I would have liked. That may well be a house style designed to deal with the tastes of tourists, but the chop itself was meaty and delicious as was the sauce which, if I had not substituted for another vegetable, would have been perfect to soak into the accompanying Jersey Royals.

Instead I went for the offer of a “forgotten vegetable” in this case runner beans. There is a reason why so many of these vegetables are forgotten, because for years they were served boiled until they had lost all flavour and texture. These were spot on, retaining colour and bite and I used one to clean out a small pot of rather lovely mint jelly.

The wine list too is short, but nods towards Britain with some wines from Three Choirs. It also lists some decent ciders and some more than decent St Peter’s Ale.

I could not face pudding, but suspect that dishes like Gooseberry cobbler and Lemon Posset would be worth the extra £4, sorry “four British pounds”

As it was, two courses for £16, plus tip for really lovely service, is not too shabby for an impromptu lunch and although there were a few errors along the way a decent, good value lunch in a tourist attraction might just be, as St Paul himself might have thought, something worth writing home about

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

THE COMPASS: BEATING IT












A few weeks ago I turned up at a new Martin Bros pub in Chelsea and more or less immediately turned on my heels and walked out. The beef: well in my opinion they’d finessed the idea of a gastropub to such an extent that the place in question (no idea of its name now) seemed like some sort of parody of the genre. Any right-thinking person would be put off gastropubs for life if they weren’t already.

Luckily for you, gentle reader, DH are made of sterner stuff and the news of yet another gastro opening in the nabe had us rushing up there to bring you the real skinny. Unfortunately, HS is on a mission to fit into his Bruno Mesh T-Shirt that his fiancé bought him for his birthday, so when I say ‘us’ it was in fact just moi.

A few cocktails to the good and I wandered down to The Compass situated at the Eastern end of the ever-so-slightly-grotty Chapel Market, home to a proper market that still keeps it real (I’m always agent number two btw). I don't think I’ve ever visited The Compass in it's previous incarnation but the big barn-like space has been spruced up a bit, a small open kitchen installed along with a few other bits and bobs that only people of the middle class tribe would immediately recognise as the signs of a gastropub makeover.

Ok, it's another chain (the owners also own The Green in Clerkenwell) but thankfully there's a complete absence of overt theming. There's four real ales on tap - I had a particularly nice IPA from Whitstable - and the menu looked a bit more interesting than the dismal quotidian norm.

Proper bar snacks are becoming de rigeur for palces these days and the kitchen here has a go. The Scotch Egg was room temperature but would have been improved by being cooked to order – always the sign of a kitchen with serious intent. The Egg was overcooked and the Pork lacked the deep porkiness of some of the better examples. The pastry was nice and flaky on my Black Pudding Sausage Roll but it was a bit cold in the centre. So not up to say Bull & Last standards but plus marks for making a valiant attempt. I suspect going at lunchtime may be the wise move here when the snacks have just been made.

A starter proper of Snails was great, though. The Snails had been braised and lay on a smooth, garlic puree through which some parsley - also pureed - had been run. The garlic, presumably roasted, had none the pungency or bitterness of the raw bulb and had cooked to a beautiful sweetness. Lovely dish.

Slip Soles were two small fish that had been cooked in the Spanish manner i.e. simply grilled. The fish were very fresh and the grill marks added another dimension to the flavour. There was some peppery watercress on the side and a tart tartare sauce. Chips appeared homemade and looked the part. Unfortunately, before their final frying they'd dried out too much making the end result a bit desiccated and mealy in texture.

Puds are kept pretty simple and an Eton Mess was a pleasant change from helado. It was well made: light and tasty with an excellent meringue. Coffee wasn't bad either.
Service was spot on and there were plenty of smiles all round which I quite like (no I do, really).

Sometimes with new openings that are part of a chain I fear the worst but The Compass transcends the dire norm in London and is well worth a punt and with a few tweaks here and could be even better - although even in its current form I’d be happy to go back. Fingers crossed they don't decide to do a Martin and open any more.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

CROWN FISH & CHIP BAR: A PRAT ON PRATT ST











I am always wary when people tell me that “so and so is the best ……….. restaurant in London” It usually only means that said place, of whatever ethnic origin, is just around the corner from them.

I am especially wary when they utter those same words about a fish & chip shop. As you may well be aware, if you are a regular reader of the blog, DH are very specific when it comes to restaurant matters fish & chipular and few examples in the capital come close to those, well just about anywhere North of the M6.

That’s not to say that there are none worthy of trying, but the chance of discovering more like Masters Superfish or The Golden Hind are becoming fewer and fewer as we exhaust another option every few weeks.

I had three in mind for today’s excursion; Poseidon in Finchley, Something Fishy in Lewisham and Crown Fish & Chip Bar on Pratt St in Camden. All came recommended and all, somewhere on the Internet had been described as “the best fish & chips in London” I had my doubts, but as HP often says “we do it so you don’t have to”

In the end I chose Crown Fish & Chip Bar as the one that I could get to and from most quickly, the main reason being that I also had a doctor’s appointment later in the afternoon and consequently wanted to limit the amount of time I walked around with a plastic vial of my own urine in my pocket.

Just South of Camden tube station and on a small side road, Crown is one of those multi purpose chip shop come cafes that offer everything from fish & chips, of course, to fried chicken, pizza, kebabs and lots of other foodstuffs designed to soak up the booze imbibed by late night Camden revellers.

On Friday lunchtime, however it was empty bar me and a couple of people ordering take away, so I plonked myself down in a corner and had soon requested my normal fish & chip control order of large haddock & chips, mushy peas and a cup of tea. The tea came immediately, while the fish was being cooked to order (it nearly always has to be for haddock, which is why it is a suitable test)

Unfortunately, the fish arrived soon afterwards, too soon. One glimpse at the decent sized piece of fish on my plate told me that

a) It had not been cooked for long enough
b) It had been cooked in oil that was not hot enough

Good batter should bubble up to a crisp, coming away from the fish to form a protective coating under which the fish can steam to perfection. Here, the soggy batter, lacking any crunch at all, clung to the fish so I had to peel it back revealing both the raw batter underside and the greying fish, which had begun to soak in the oil that had leak through during the cooking, really rather nasty.

The chips were little better. Suitably white but undercooked so they did not spurtle with vinegary steam when doused with non-brewed condiment. The peas, were green and harmless, but one would hopefully expect more than that for somewhere that people have the temerity to call the best in London, even if it is on Qype and somewhere that charges £10 for the privilege.

I left barely half an hour after arriving although the taste of the greasy cooking remains with me still, as do the lessons I learned from today's quick jaunt. The first, is that I should stop listening to the opinions of others, well just about ever, and the second that people who tell me that “so and so is the best…………..restaurant in London really need to get out a bit more.

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