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

Sunday, November 28, 2010


There was a very polarised debate recently (on the Guardian Word of Mouth blog I think) about kids in restaurants. I read it disinterestedly because I spend a lot of time in restaurants in London and Spain and I’ve never had a problem.

In the latter country it’s not unusual to see young children eating out with their parents quite late at night. If they’re not eating the parents send the little blighters off to the nearest plaza where they run around until they collapse with exhaustion to be picked up later by mamá y papá . In London, I’ve encountered the odd crying baby at lunchtime but the parents usually just take the sprog for a walk around the block until they stop.

As I said before I’ve never had a problem, but that was until the other night when I visited Brawn, the new sister wine bar/restaurant to Terroirs which brought natural wines to the West End. The whole story is too tedious to go into now but I’d asked the parents of a couple of young children if they would mind keeping them under control.

It was as if I’d just announced to the room that I'm giving the Queen a Pearl necklace for Christmas.

The manager came over to smooth things over but sided with the parents (“We want a relaxed atmosphere here”). When I pointed out that playing hide and seek using tables upon which there were wine glasses and red-hot skillets might not be appropriate he said that they were sensible children. Henceforth I was known as Angry Man.

So a here’s a message to all the Boho parents of Hackney: I’ve got news for you, you feckless, Middle Class twerps. The last time I looked the World was revolving around the Sun, not you and your little lifestyle accessories. If you don’t like it, shove off to Giraffe (which I believe are handily located all over the capital). Now on with the post.

I have a theory about Natural wines that someone, someday will come out and admit it was a big con all along and they’re very sorry for selling us weird, cloudy wines at elevated prices. It’s just a theory of course but Natural wines are very odd. I like them, but then I’m quite odd too.

The more outré examples remind me of Gueuze with that mixture of sourness and natural pétillant character. Others just taste as if they might be off. They do have a freshness to them though that is, well, refreshing and makes them natural partners (see what I did there?) to food, especially charcuterie, terrines and the like.

Which is lucky because that is what Brawn has aplenty on its menu. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the cooked dishes I tried failed to impress (as at Terroirs).

I was hoping for some lightness and balance in my Zander (Pike-Perch) Quenelles with shellfish sauce but the dumplings were rather eggy and heavy and didn’t taste much of the advertised freshwater fish. The sauce had been heavily reduced as well making it too harsh and salty.

A Caillette is a sort of faggot and this one, from Daniel Thierry, a master charcutier from Troyes (which presumably accounts for the price) had a nice, not over-processed texture and tasted fine although I always prefer a stronger offal flavour. The mash that came with the meatball was gluey and overprocessed and needed some butter or cream to enrich it. The carrots were surprisingly good.

Pre-prepped is definitely the way to go at Brawn as bookending the meal were some better plates. The Saucisse Seche and the Salame da Spalmare were excellent., especially the latter (aka Nduja) which is a sort of spicy, spreadable salami. However, with a single Oyster and some waffer-thin slices of parmesan I paid a tenner which seems very mean given the weeny portions.

The Pork Rillette wasn’t bad either: it at least tasted of Pork, which is a promising start, and had the proper meaty/fatty ratio. The texture was a little smooth though as if they’d machine-processed it instead of doing it by hand. I could have done with some toast as well although the bread was a decent sub.

At the other end of the meal was a good Chocolate Mousse although I’m sure this sounds like Mr Damning had just come into the restaurant accompanied by Ms F. Praise.

It does seem to me that places predicated on their wine just can’t get the hang of this cooking lark and so it proved at Brawn. Having said that it’s a pleasant, relaxed place for a drink (especially if you fancy trying Natural wines), its alternative role as E2 community centre notwithstanding, and if you stick to dishes that won’t test the kitchen’s cooking chops too much you should be ok.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010


A lot people seem to be under the impression that DH's direct-from-the-gut approach to our food and restaurant posts are some sort of pose. Possibly something to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the food-blogging herd. They couldn't be further from the truth - we've always been loud, irascible and big-headed. And that's just our good qualities. Take for instance this post by HS from almost a decade ago where our trademark opinionated style is present and correct. Even in those salad days I still shamed restaurants into giving me more if I thought the portionage inadequate and my love of rough, clear spirits continues to this day.

It was only when I visited North Road restaurant the other night that I realised it was situated where the subject of that Chowhound post, The Clerkenwell Dining Rooms, had been. Before that I think it had been an outpost of the Stephen Bull (remember him?) empire and to be honest when I first walked in it reminded me of that place, light, pleasant but a bit anonymous.

I’d never made it up to Fig in Islington to try Christoffer Hruskova’s food before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I sat down as the lone diner in the restaurant, accompanied only by the strains of Al Green’s How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. Sob.

The menu descriptions looked blissfully straightforward although I wasn't always convinced they corresponded exactly with what I was eating. The taciturn waiters didn’t seem to be certain either. I was grateful however they hadn't gone down the route of christening the dishes with names like Memories of Helsingør or Jutland. Spring. Dusk. although there was the gratuitous use of the word "textures" in the pudding menu. Slap Hand.

The cooking would best be described as resolutely Northern European with the additional benefit of helping one to lose weight – there’s hardly a carb is to be seen here. So instead of the usual basket of bread (“zees ees whalnut, zees is a meenie baggette…etc”) I got three skins: one of cod, one of pork and one of chicken. Quite nice although the one of chicken was a bit chewy. Alongside were some little quail eggs that had been smoked.

Like the similarly experimental Coi in San Francisco which I visited earlier in the year, there is a fair bit of greenery and additional flourishes (one dish was like eating an exhibit at the Chelsea Flower show) that while not unpleasant doesn’t always feel like an improvement. In fact, at North Road, the strongest component of every dish I ordered was the primary protein which, with the exception of the lobster, was always of decent quality and cooked with precision.

So in the first starter of Scallops, the little bivalves were cooked perfectly with a slight blush of colour. I wasn’t sure what the bitter cress was bringing to the table although it was interesting in and of itself.

The little powdered horseradish was a nice touch as were the strips of apple, but as in some of the other dishes there was always the feeling there was possibly one ingredient too many.

Take for instance the Veal Sweetbreads – and don’t trust anyone who says the lamby version are just as good, they’re not – which were cooked just so: good colour on the outside but melting and soft on the inside. They were covered in a ghostly shroud of milk skin which added a sweet, creamy note. There were some small braised onions and pickled green elderberries that added a little acid touch. But then they had to go and add some pickled onions as well which basically killed all the other flavours.

The car-crash of the starters was the Cured Native Lobster and Buttermilk with Horseradish, Coastal Herbs and Vinaigrette. Now much as I like Sashimi I really believe that shellfish are immeasurably improved by the application of a bit of heat. And so it was here. The taste of the lobster didn’t come through and it was very salty. The rest of the dish was like a cold soup of hedgerow clippings. Edible, but only just.

Thankfully, mains were more conventional and excellent. A thick wedge of squeakily fresh Brill was perfectly cooked and sat on top of some bias-cut salsify that had been cooked in a sort of creamy sauce that I’m guessing wasn’t made from cream. The green stuff on the top had been made out of a sea vegetable and added a gentle briny taste. A lovely dish that could only have been improved with some of those elderberries.

The kitchen were getting into their stride now and a Veal three ways really hit the spot. A small fillet of baby cow was pink and delicious as was a roundel of the braised and shredded tail, the whole topped with shreds of Veal breast. I may have got the last two bits mixed up but in any case it was terrific cooking.

Such was the lightness of touch evident in all the dishes I managed to squeeze in a couple of puds. The word interesting probably best sums them up.

Jerusalem Artichokes and Sunflower seeds tasted like the Indian dish Kulfi covered in a light, creamy, moussey thing. Not unpleasant, probably twice as big as it needed to be.

Low Tide at Skagen…sorry, Liquorice and caramel in textures was a sort of caramel ice cream covered in, well, your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t detect the liquorice but the caramel was nice. Again, the portion was more generous that it needed to be (I know, a Hermano saying there was too much food. Scandalous). At least both dishes kept my insulin levels on an even keel.

Restaurants aren’t some sort of binary manifestation i.e. having one sort of gaff doesn’t preclude the presence of any other, so I always welcome anyone who brings something new and diverse to the dining scene. While I’m not as convinced as some of this new foraged ingredient-led style the fact that at North Road it’s allied to great ingredients and sure technique make it one of the better new openings in London. I’ll be returning.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Autumn is clearly the best time for anyone with even the slightest interest in food. Short days and bad weather means no going outside for me (I might catch a chill) unless it’s to visit the pub or a restaurant. It also means Game, Big Sunday Roasts and most importantly the Native Oyster season.

For me Oysters are up there with Jamón Ibérico as one of the great foodstuffs of the World and the Native variety one of the best you can get anywhere.

Until fairly recently it was difficult to satisfy a sudden urge to down a dozen on the half-shell with a beer or glass of crisp Muscadet. Now we have a number of places in the capital where you can pop in sans reservation and indulge oneself although in my view it’s still not nearly enough.

At the more tony end of the Oyster bar spectrum there are places like the estimable Bentley’s, J Sheekey’s and Scott’s. A little more casual is Wright Brothers who just happen to supply most, but not all, of the restaurants in London with bivalves. In addition to their Borough Market bar they’ve now opened a branch just off Carnaby Street in London’s bustling West End.

It’s a little hidden away inside Kingly Court although frustratingly you can see in from Kingly Street but can’t enter from there. Let’s hope this doesn’t limit foot traffic.

The original restaurant gets horribly crowded, especially towards the end of the week so it was nice to see the new place had a lot more room. There’s a small area just by the entrance where you can walk in and plonk yourself at a table or at the bar. Further back there’s a slightly bigger more conventional space with tables. All the action though is in the basement where you can watch your Oysters get shucked or watch your food get cooked. It does get a little hot down there so beware.

When you’re jonesing for Oysters the only difficult decision will be when to stop eating them. In my case it was after a couple of mixed platters of Natives and some extra Kumamotos. Speaking of which I’ve only ever seen this variety in the US before now but Wright Brothers import the sprats from Japan and cultivate them over here. They’re small but have a wonderful briny taste with a length that goes on and on. Of the other two varieties I tried I marginally preferred the Colchester’s to the Duchy’s but, you know, they’re all good.

In addition to the Oysters there’s a rather magnificent looking Fruits de Mer with the components available separately and some simple short order dishes along with a few daily specials.

My Razor Clams came pre-cooked and cold and though fresh there’s not really a point to these blighters unless grilled with plenty of garlic and olive oil or maybe made into a cerviche.

Whitebait and Squid were much better: accurately deep-fried and served whilst still piping hot and crisp. A tartare sauce with the fish could have been a little looser in texture but was still a decent, perky accompaniment. The other stuff going out looked pretty good too but for me it’s always going to be about the Oysters.

For afters I liked the sound of a Gelupo Lemon Sorbet but as the shop itself is only five minutes away it seemed a shame not to visit the mothership.

That’s the nice thing about the West End these days - as there is a critical mass of decent places to eat you can indulge in a bit of progressive dining. Indeed the very next day I was back at the bar of Wright Brothers with some friends, knocking back Kumamotos and copitas of Manzanilla as a prelude to a visit to Bob Bob Ricard for Vintage Champagne.

Hey, it’s Dos Hermanos’ World – I just live in it.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Although I’m no fan of Prince Charles or his bizarre views on architecture – he seems to want all of London re-modelled to look like it was frozen in time around the early 19th century – I’m pretty sure we’d be of one mind regarding One New Change in the City of London.

Ok, so there wasn’t much there before but as we know, business abhors a vacuum. So instead of say, a nice large public space from which one could admire Wren’s masterpiece, we get the ‘Stealth Bomber’, a shopping mall as stealthy as Katie Price in a Shrinking Violet contest. A shopping mall filled with the sort of places you would only see if you walked for, oh, a few minutes in any direction. Be assured your Nando’s requirements are fully served by 1NC.

The prime location in this behemoth - which presumably came with a suitably stiff price tag - is occupied by Barbecoa a collaboration between Adam Perry Lang (who he?) and our own, cheeky, chappy, TV Chef, St Jamie of Oliver.

I’ll fess up now and say my attitude to JO is one of indifference. His early TV series, with its wobbly camera work and its slappy happy young ‘uns just got on my tits so I never watched it again. I hear he’s been doing stuff to help fat Americans recently (he’s got his work cut out) which is all fine and dandy although I tend to be more impressed by people who just get on with their good works without a TV camera and book deal in tow. So just a little bit of baggage then.

The weird thing was though, the closer the time for my booking the more psyched I became. I kept re-reading the menu thinking this could be really good. Even arriving at the restaurant and being led into the maelstrom of a fully-booked City restaurant full of cheap suits didn’t put me off. The smiley, friendly service also gave me good vibes. Then I started eating the food and toute de suite I was un-psyched.

The first problem I noticed was the quality of the meat or rather the lack of it. From the Pork Scratchings (which came with a schmear of mole sauce of cinnamon-driven weirdness), through the Pigs Cheek, Baby Back Ribs and Pulled Pork, and finishing with the Burger nothing actually tasted like good Pork or decent Beef. The website only states that: “All of meat and fish is British from farms in Scotland, Yorkshire and Surrey where animal welfare and breeding are of the highest quality”. Which means. Precisely. Nothing.

The second problem was the quality of the cooking and preparation which was mediocre – I can’t say abysmal because I ate some of it. Dishes were going out with little or no quality control. That’s the only explanation for the chips that came with my burger that were limper than Larry “Shut That Door” Grayson’s wrist (one for the kids there).

A little patty of Crispy Pig Cheeks was oily and underseasoned, the accompanying salad too salty. The Piccalilli had soft veg and uncooked spices which caught at the back of the mouth.

Anyone expecting anything to evoke BBQ from the US is going to be seriously disappointed. The sauce on the ribs was 1D and inoffensive. The one that smothered the Pulled Pork was very sweet, the whole making me feel quite queasy.

Then there were odd little touches as well like the overuse of fresh coriander and the dish of assorted leaves with my Pulled Pork (for constructing a rudimentary summer roll perhaps?). And apparently a slaw in JO’s universe is over-acidulated red cabbage and white cabbage.

Finally, there was the cost. Even with 25% off, every plate (or should that be plank) of food reminded you how much it must have cost to get this show on the road. I’m still scratching my head over how they came up with £11 for a few ribs.

Still, this is the City, where there’s little discernment but plenty of wonga swilling around – when I arrived a couple were just starting on their second bottle of Krug – so I’m sure the owners won’t have any problem getting their money back. Indeed, JO and his partner were already talking of a roll-out before the place was even open which tells you where they’re coming from (making Garfunkel’s look like great value perhaps?)

I don’t usually give advice regarding restaurants in the blog. If you want to know what a place is like you should always go and try it for yourself. In Barbecoa’s case I’m going to break with tradition and say save your pennies. Jamie doesn’t need the money and you, gentle reader, could do without a lousy, overpriced meal.

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