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

Monday, January 31, 2011


When I was resting between jobs (you'll probably remember my role as Pale in The Tinsley Players production of Lanford Wilson's Burn This) I kept a spreadsheet of restaurants which were due to open.

Exhibiting slightly alarming tendencies of the anorak variety (most men have them but usually keep them firmly under control) I would scour the trade rags and job sites for news about new restaurants and count down the days to when they finally opened. I would pitch up for a meal - barely giving the paint on the doors a chance to dry - usually to the bemusement of the staff.

Things change. Now with increased use of social media by PRs and Chefs most places are known about well before they open. Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner is a good example. It’s also made it pretty difficult to find those undiscovered gems that made all the list-keeping so worthwhile.

Or so I thought until recently when a tipoff from someone I follow on Twitter had me running to Google Maps (RIP A to Z). My contact had mentioned a pub which now had new owners. The lineage of the staff pointed to the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo. I'd got a similar tip from the same person about the rather wonderful Canton Arms in Stockwell so I knew it would be a lead worth following up.

The Perseverance is situated in a quiet road in an odd little area north of the Marylebone Road and just round the corner from the charming Marylebone Station, an area which has thankfully yet to be designated ‘a village’.

The pub has been stripped down, cleaned up and given a lick of paint to produce a casually elegant space which is dominated by a large horseshoe bar. At the moment there’s just a few tables to eat at but there are plans to open a 40 cover dining room on the first floor.

If you're a fan of bling or any sort of see-and-be-seen, er, scene then The Perseverance may not be for you. It's got a relaxed feel that I liked but the emphasis is definitely on the things that matter: food and drink. I'll eat a lot of meals in the forthcoming year but I like to think the ones I’ve had here will be up there with the best.

The menu was one of those that you look at and wish one’s capacity to eat wasn’t being slowly diminished year by year – I genuinely would have been happy eating any of the dishes on it (apart from the soup which I’m sure is terrific but which I hardly ever order in a restaurant).

Chef Justin Aubrey’s food is not of the shouty type that blasts the taste buds with over-reduced sauces and flavours that clamour for attention and which leave you feeling a little ill. No, this is deceptively simple stuff but made with good ingredients and a fine technique to give a surprisingly refined result.

For a starter the Monkfish Liver is probably as interesting and delicious a dish as you can get in London at the moment. Two decent-sized lobes of Monkfish Liver had been lightly browned in butter. They were soft with a delicate flavour of offal and of the sea. A sort of piscine Foie Gras. It had been paired with a salad of Parsley, Capes and Shallot to add a burst of piquancy.

A bowl of steamed Clams had the heady aroma of the bivalves best buddies: garlic and lemon. They were fresh and meaty and left a small puddle of shellfish broth into which I had to dunk chunks of the good homemade bread.

Saddle of Rabbit had been boned and stuffed with its own offal and some greens. The whole had been rolled and covered in bacon and sliced. It was moist and tender with that faint taste of game that rabbit has but with an offal hit. It came with a little jug of a creamy mustard sauce and a small dish of a rich Celeriac Gratin.

Another main course was an individual Wellington. Fillet of Bambi was covered with a mushroom duxelles in the classic manner and wrapped in excellent pastry. A slick of jus, some watercress and excellent red cabbage made for a fine dish to say goodbye to January to. This is seasonal food without making a song and dance about it.

Good pastry was also in evidence in the puds as well. Over a couple of visits there’s been a tart on the menu and the Lemon one particularly stood out in the memory with it’s crumbly pastry and light, zesty lemon cream. Three scoops of a Salty Butter Caramel Ice Cream had proper texture and just the right amount of bitter caramel taste. A similar number of scoops of a tart Granny Smith sorbet would be a good choice if you’d overindulged during the rest of the meal (maybe too much of the marvellous bread); a cup of their good Coffee with a Grappa would serve the same purpose.

The wine list has been intelligently put together with several natural wines available – if that floats your boat – but I was guided towards a terrific Beaujolais which seemed like it would go with anything. Like the food the prices seem pretty reasonable to me and if you don’t want to splash out on a bottle there’s plenty available by the glass or two sizes of pot.

When I’ve visited good, independent operations I’ve always bemoaned the fact that there aren’t more of them around especially in the central parts of the capital. With chains increasingly cluttering up our high streets the hope that we could have similar joints on every corner begins to look like a pipe dream. Places like The Perseverance make me think there’s still hope. Budding restaurateurs please take note or better yet pay them a visit, they’re nice people.

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Saturday, January 29, 2011


My love affair with sushi has been a long and slow process in the making.

I think the very first time I tried sushi in all its glory must have been in my early twenties at a restaurant called Ajimura, close to London's Covent Garden. I recall not liking it terribly much, gagging slightly at both the thought and taste of raw fish and then getting a dose of the heeby jeebys when presented with a bill for the meal which approached £100 (bear in mind this was 1986).

After that, Sushi and I left each other pretty much to our own devices for the next decade or so and it was not until frequent business trips to New York became a part of my life in the late 1990’s, that we bumped into each other again on a regular basis. There was still no way that I would have described sushi as my “go to” meal at this stage, but I at least began to be aware of the finer points of its preparation and to look forward to rather than dread the suggestions of my NYC based friends that we go and prop up a counter somewhere and utter the words "omakase”.

Move on another decade and regular exposure to good sushi in The Big Apple at places like Yasuda and Jewel Bakko, meant that I was now pretty much besotted, an expensive, but unlikely scenario given my first rather ghastly experience.

Back in London, it did and still does prove extraordinarily hard to assuage my all too common cravings. It is not that there are no good sushi restaurants at all in town. There certainly are, but even the best bear little or no comparison to those I have tried in the US, both in the variety and the quality of the fish they serve. They certainly fill a gap, but you can’t help but get the same feeling when eating Sushi in London that you might get watching Brentford vs Rotherham after having just been to The Bernabeu to see Real face off with Barca.

Then came the Japan stage of the EAT MY GLOBE journey and all bets were off. Japanese cuisine, of course, is so much more than sushi, as I found when I went to seven cities and ate as well as I have done anywhere on earth. But, it was a visit to see the auctions at the legendary Tsukiji market and the opportunity to eat a simple meal of glistening tuna on top of a bowl of rice that convinced me that, if I were presented with the opportunity to choose my last meal, sushi, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Fish & Chips and a 20oz 45 day dry aged steak would have t battle it out for the honour of seeing me on my way.

Now I am based in LA, sushi is everywhere. There’s cheap sushi for a quick lunchtime snack, smarter places for the evenings when only raw fish will do and, at the top of the tree there is Urasawa, with only ten seats and where a meal for two costs the same as a small European sports car. Everyone in LA has their favourite sushi spot and arguments about the merits of the fish and rice preparation can rage for hours at a time and bring lifelong friendships to a shouty conclusion.

Last week as I enjoyed a rather good Soul Food meal with my chum, Aaron Tell, who runs the excellent Savory Hunter blog, our conversations turned to sushi. We agreed on a couple of places and disagreed on a couple more. Then Aaron, a resident of Los Angeles for many years, mentioned Sushi Mori. I had never heard of it, but he assured me it was excellent and then we quickly moved on to the more important task of dividing up some freshly fried chicken.

Today, after I had pushed myself through a long run in the gym and Sybil had done enough work from home to justify a break, we both agreed that we had earned a decent lunch. My mind turned back to Aaron’s recommendation and I suggested Sushi Mori as a suitable reward for our hard work. Sybil had never been either and quickly agreed.

Sushi Mori is situated in an unassuming one storey building at an intersection of Pico Boulevard. The large pole bearing a line sketch of a fish is the only clue to the purpose of the small space and inside there are just a handful of tables as well as the obligatory counter.

Once we had taken our seats and ordered the Omakase, Chef Fumi presented us with a small dish of home made tofu topped with freshly grated wasabi and served with a small bowl of house blend soy sauce. It was a stunning start. The tofu dissolved on the tongue and told us enough about Sushi Mori to know that this was going to be both an excellent and a costly meal. We decided that we could put up with the latter because of the former.

Our appetizers continued with the arrival of a slate bearing Japanese eggplant topped with two types of miso and a small dish containing thin slices of rich monkfish liver. The monkfish liver was still a little cold and lacked the unctuous quality it would have taken on had it been allowed to sit a little, but the two cylinders of aubergine were spectacular with a light smoky touch from the torch with which they had been seared.

As if to confirm our positive opinions, the next dish proved to be one of my favourite of the whole meal. A small earthenware bowl, produced by Mori as all the tableware is we were informed, contained an inch of light fish broth flecked out with thin dices of peppers. Poaching in the liquid were slivers of monkfish, tiny clams and the sweetest small shrimps I can recall tasting. The broth had a strong hit of Japanese black pepper, which Fumi told us was because it was a dish usually served in winter.

We were still two dishes away from seeing any sushi at this point and I would have become a little angsty had the next arrival not been quite as special as it turned out to be. Another seasonal dish this time in the form of meat from a Japanese hairy crab, along with its leg, the cholesterol meat and a light, sweet vinegar dipping sauce.

What followed was equally as good. A fresh Abolone and strips of Shishito peppers in a light coating of tempura batter needed no more than simple accompaniments of a few grains of sea salt and a handful of drops of lemon juice to set them off. So often, when I have encountered abalone on my travels, it has been little more than exorbitantly priced tyre rubber. Here, a deft hand with the fryer meant that, while it still required a bite, it will not still be putting up a fight come supper time.

Starters over and done with, it was sushi time. This is the point in the Omakase where we would be presented with bite sized pieces of fish until either Chef Fumi caved or we did. With Sybil in tow and just warming up, I didn’t like his odds, but after eleven (yes folks, count ‘em, eleven) pieces of achingly fresh fish, we had to wave him away.

While none of it was less than excellent, we both had different favourites. Sybil loved the small sweet shrimp caught, we were told, off the east coast. They were also seasonal Chef Fumi explained, going on to say they would only be around for another week. We both “oohed” and “aahed” over two types of tuna and two different types of Yellowtail, but it was the Japanese “Needle” fish, which made my raise an eyebrow. It was a new one on me and brought with it a stronger taste that made me sure to look out for again.

Each piece of sushi came lightly dressed with the house soy sauce and we would have possibly stopped earlier had Chef Fumi not informed us that he had two types of Uni (sea urchin) available. Well, of course, such a boast demanded that we try them both. As our last hurrah, we were presented with two cylinders of Maki Sushi where the rice had been topped by thin discs of both Uni from Japan and from up the coast in Santa Barbara. While the domestic was good, it paled in comparison to its Japanese cousin which melted on the tongue like fishy Space Dust.

And that was it. Well, not quite. Hermano Primero would have been proud to see me polish off both dishes of a subtle ginger ice cream before we called for the bill. When it arrived, we both sucked in a considerable amount of breath. Good sushi never comes cheap, that much I learned during my first meal at Ajimura two and a half decades ago, but the bill at a Japanese restaurant still has the capacity to knock the wind from your sails.

Here, with tip for friendly and efficient service, it came to a whopping $330. That’s about $300 more than we would normally plan to spend on a Friday lunch in case you were wondering how often we splurge like this. But, after a quick readjustment in our seats and after the quick mimed “how F**king much?” gesture to each other, we shrugged our shoulders and handed over a credit card.

We laughed about it on the way home and by the time we pulled into our driveway, we had decided that it was just about worth the cost for a meal of such obvious quality in both ingredients and execution. It’s just as well because Sybil is now only too aware that there are, as Princess Diana put it so well, three of us in this marriage.

The other is my mistress of some twenty years, Lady Sushi and I ain’t letting her go any time soon.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I'm usually not a huge fan of the small plate way of eating but on my recent visits to London's Famous West End I've found that I don't always want to book ahead for a full-blown 3-course meal. A few small plates sometimes suits me better and there's now such a concentration of good places that serves them that it becomes an easy way to pop into a few of an evening. Think Oysters at Wright Brothers, Zakuski at Bob Bob Ricard, Gelato from Gelupo.

You can now add Opera Tavern to that list, the latest place from those nice people who also gave us the popular (well I can never get into them) Salt Yard and Dehesa.

I visited on their first night when there was a 50% discount on the food (while we iron out any creases) although the place seemed to be up and running more or less as I expect it to be henceforth.

There were a few little crimps: some room temperature Manzanilla was changed for some of equal warmth. A middle class woe for sure and not very important except in the course of a vaguely Iberian meal. One or two dishes didn’t quite hit the mark but then I did order quite a few. I also felt there was some timidity to the seasoning and spicing - but that’s easily corrected.

Opera Tavern is a two floor affair and I sat in the small dining room upstairs. It was nice enough but it looked a lot more fun downstairs in the bar area. This how eating tapas should be experienced but very rarely is in this country – we don’t mind a bit of hustle and bustle when boozing but we won’t stand for it (literally) when eating.

It might be advancing years but I'm finding a lot menus a bit confusing these days. Used to putting together a standard three courses I’m a bit lost with the small plate scene. Just how much does one order? Having just the prices to go on (more expensive = bigger) I decided to order dishes in small groups and stop when I was stuffed. It also meant no food sitting around getting cold on the table if it all came en masse.

A couple of terrines: one of Lamb and one of Duck and FG didn’t really rock my socks. Is Lamb Breast a good basis for a cold terrine? Not on this showing and it had the same problems as with the Duck and Foie gras: a slightly claggy texture and none of that unctuous mouthfeel that you get with a good one.

The Scotch Egg was perfectly cooked with a soft boiled egg interior and a crisp breaded exterior but I not convinced the veal added anything and may have just contributed to blanding it out a bit. Crisp Iberico Pigs year were great though, being both crisp and porky and the preparation - as fine tendrils of ear - was actually an improvement over the Spanish norm.

The mini Iberico Pork and Foie Gras Burger was a winner too. The patty came medium rare and was topped with delicate little onion rings and was a rich, meaty mouthful. Nom Nom as the kids say. Pickled Guindilla peppers added crunch and an acidic bite. It was so good I did think seriously about ordering a second.

Crispy Squid is a bit of a cliché and seems to be on every menu though not many can pull off the trick of getting it right. It was a good attempt at Opera Tavern with excellent, un-chewy squid but I found it a tad greasy (oil not hot enough?) so you tasted more of the frying than the squid. It also meant I still don’t know what Sea Purslane tastes like.

I liked the Mackerel Escabeche with roasted Beets and Hazelnuts which combine some interesting textures and sweetness of the beets working well against the sourness of the marinade. The fish was a little more fishy than I prefer, as Mackerel tends to be whenever you eat it any distance from the sea.

After fishy treats, back to the meaty ones. Pincho Morunos are more commonly little cubes of pork on skewers. Here they’re also made with Onglet and with Lamb and it Kidney. You'll probably do as I did and order all three. The taste was great if a little diffuse and there was a ‘wetness’ to them which was odd as they had probably just come off the grill. Possibly the porcini had leaked a bit. The spicing could have been kicked up a notch too - small bites like this should have some impact. Still enjoyed them though.

I didn't fancy any of the puddings so the nice staff kindly put together one for me: a lovely Clementine Sorbet with a tremendous Milk Ice Cream. The ice cream being one of the nicest I've had recently.

As with all small plate operations calculating the total price can involve some complex mental arithmetic which usually ends with a gross under-estimation. This will be slightly tempered by the fact most people will not be as big a greedy guts as me and will actually have friends they can share their food (and bill) with.

In any case you’ll still come out of the Opera Tavern well-fed and watered and although it is a chain of sorts it’s one with a more personal touch that stands well above the tourist-targeted dross in the immediate vicinity.

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