Monday, 12 June 2017

Bite Me Burgers, Holborn

Cha Chaan Teng is a huge, ugly basement restaurant off huge, ugly Kingsway in Covent Garden, which - as far as I can tell - has remained relatively unbothered by paying customers since it opened in September last year. I didn't like it much then, and a quick glance at their menu today reveals hardly enough to have changed to make me think it would be worth another try now, and yet I found myself venturing down that garish staircase once again thanks to a residency (sorry "pop-up") by Bite Me burgers, who have set up shop in Cha Chaan Teng's small kitchen (yes, CCT had two kitchens; we don't know why).

Bite Me are from Australia, joining a list of restaurants that have made the jump across from the Southern Hemisphere as long as... actually, now I come to think of it, are there any? Is Bill's Australian? If it is, I'm not surprised you don't hear many Aussies bragging about it; my friend once had a lunch at Bill's in Richmond so bad she left in tears. So if there's no great tradition of Australian restaurant concepts expanding to the UK, it's a brave soul indeed - in this case chef Adam Rawson - who would attempt such a coals-to-Newcastle move as starting up a burger chain. We are, as even the most oblivious must have noticed by now, sort of "OK for burgers" as a city.

For Bite Me to even get noticed at all, then, they'd have to be something pretty special. Surprisingly - and I genuinely was surprised - the burgers themselves, slider-size little things, pretty as a picture and sold in sets of 3, 4 or 12, have immediately found a space in my top 5 burgers in the city. They're great. Unfortunately for Bite Me, sharing a space with Cha Chaan Teng means not only that they're served in a room with as much charm and sophistication as a branch of Foxtons, but that they're also at the whim of CCT's seating policy. Those spacious, leather-backed booths at the sides? Not for you, my friend - you'll be seated on a ricketty plastic table for two in the middle of the room, while all the good tables remain resolutely empty for the duration of your meal.

But enough moaning about seating arrangements; Bite Me do takeout anyway, and Lincoln's Inn Field is just around the corner. No, what's really important are the burgers, and it turns out that Adam Rawson, along with MeatLiquor, and Bleecker, and Burgerac, and perhaps only a handful of other people in the country, knows exactly what makes a good burger and exactly how to transfer that knowledge into a cracking end product. The beef, aged and fluffy of texture (I'm guessing from never being frozen) brings to mind Nathan Mills' work for Bleecker, which of course is about as big a compliment as you can pay to, well, mince. The short list of varietals - one with bacon, one with shredded lettuce and a "Big Mac"-style sauce - is exquisitely well-chosen and tastefully done; I'll even allow them a "Hawaiian" option with pineapple in because even this was pleasant and oddly comforting rather than deliberately quirky for the sake of quirk. And even a lamb burger, spiked with blue cheese and jalapeno, boasted powerfully fresh products and satisfied on every level.

Chips were skin-on, which is faintly annoying, but had a good crunch and were well seasoned (Himalayan salt, apparently, if you think that makes a difference). And I didn't try the chicken burger, or duck and truffle, or even a milkshake but I very strongly suspect these are all as superbly well-researched and expertly-executed as everything else I did try. As I say, this is an operation that knows what it's doing.

So, who knew a brand-new burger concept, from Australia of all places, would have the power to rise to the top of the burger tree in 2017? The only dark cloud on the horizon is that with it being so close to work, and so eminently suitable for takeout, my burger consumption could end up even further off the scale than it already is. Perhaps I could ask them to limit their sales to me, like the arrangements problem gamblers make with Casinos. One set of four a month, that should be my limit. Or maybe 3 every week? Come on, I can take it. I can stop any time I like.


Bite Me are in 50% off soft-launch mode at the moment, hence the tiny bill.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Red Rooster, Shoreditch

Please don't think that this review is the result of the fact I've not had a truly terrible meal for a while and I'm short on some kind of slating quota. I never want to have bad meals - nobody does. Quite the opposite; I spend most of my life trying - with considerable success, considering the numbers involved - to avoid them. But no matter how cautious and vigilant, you only need to let your guard down for a second to be in trouble. A bad meal is always out there somewhere; they creep upon you, stalk you like jungle cats, getting closer and closer as you wait naive and oblivious until at the last moment they strike, and you can only struggle helplessly as they tear at your soul and your wallet.

The problem with a lot of bad restaurants is that while seemingly caring little about what ends up on the plate they often manage to scrape together enough money - somehow - to employ people who can write a good menu. And the Red Rooster menu reads well - well enough, clearly, for one to assume a decent dinner there wasn't outside the realms of possibility. An interesting international melange of influences, ceviche, gravlax and fried chicken sat beside jerk pork, clam chowder and a cheeseburger - London has seen Southern US soul food before (most recently and most successfully at the late, lamented Lockhart and Shotgun) but this seemed something genuinely new, reflecting the fascinating (and well worth reading up on) background of head chef Marcus Samuelsson. The point is, we thought it was going to be good. Otherwise why bother?

Worried by the potential size of the £58 main course we had our eyes on (more on that later) we decided to share a starter of what we'd been led to believe was a Red Rooster classic - fried chicken and waffles. What arrived was a small, butterflied thigh piece, topped with chilli sauce and pickle, on top of maple waffle. The chicken itself wasn't bad, just boring - watery and plain and desperately needing more spice and seasoning. The waffle was cold and chewy but otherwise OK with a nice maltiness, and the chilli - sorry, Rooster - sauce was best described as "wet". Pickle was bizarrely good, though, so there is that.

OK, so far so bland. The "famous" Red Rooster fried chicken wasn't even the best in the East of London (certainly not with Chick'n'Sours a short bus ride away) never mind the Western Hemisphere. So perhaps the main course would redeem the place? Well, no. No, it really wouldn't. For an astronomical £58 you get three "bonemarrow" dumplings which tasted of little more than suet, a strange bed of frozen [SEE EDIT BELOW] peas, corn and chopped asparagus, and on top a two-bone piece of beef (very) short rib, I'm guessing no more than 400g or so including the bones.

We dutifully carved our miniature rib roast into two, and tried it. It was chewy from not having been cooked long enough, but to be honest I don't mind a bit of bite from a rib roast. What I do mind is paying £58 for a piece of beef so completely underseasoned - literally not a hint of salt - and underpowered that it hardly could pass as beef at all; this was a desperately poor quality bit of cow. If you had been presented with this strange pan full of frozen veg and mystery meat at a dinner party, you'd dutifully eat it, murmur quiet appreciations and quietly decide never to return, but to be asked to pay £58 for it in a hotel restaurant in Shoreditch is insane. This apparently is their signature dish, the name "Obama ribs" reflecting some kind of connection with the ex-president from which he'd be best advised to distance himself.

In a desperate effort to claw some positives from the evening I should point out that the house aquavit that came with the bill was very decent, all staff were lovely and smiley, and our waitress in particular seemed to genuinely be interested in learning that £58 is quite a lot to pay for a couple of mouthfuls of beef. And though the table they had initially given us was terrifyingly close to a live band, they quickly and happily reseated us in the conservatory when requested. But really, these are things that we should be taking for granted in a London restaurant in 2017; I'm doing them a favour for even pointing it out.

We noted with some alarm that another of the main courses - a whole fried chicken (£55!) - comes to the table adorned with a lit firework. Had our dinner been better - a lot better - this could perhaps be appreciated as a bit of naff but guiltily enjoyable theatre, a gimmick but not without its charms. However in the context of our dreadful evening, it felt like a distraction technique - that they hoped somehow people would put up with paying astronomical prices for clumsily presented, sloppily cooked food as long as was camouflaged by enough TGI Friday's flair. Well, it may have worked in Harlem but I'm afraid this is London, and up with this kind of shit we will not put. Red Rooster doesn't deserve this prestigious spot on Curtain Road and I hope this vast space is very soon put to better use. I wonder if Chick'n'Sours are looking to expand?


[EDIT: I've been assured by the PR that the peas were in fact fresh, not frozen. I'm sure I'm no expert but my friend with whom I ate the above meal still swears they were frozen. Take your pick.]

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Summers, Kilburn

Pop quiz! What do the following restaurants have in common:

Hereford Road
Anchor and Hope
32 Great Queen Street
The Canton Arms
The Camberwell Arms
The Marksman
...and possibly a great many more that I can't quite bring to mind at the moment?

The answer is, as well as being fine ways to while away a lunchtime, they all have direct links to St. John, surely one of the most important and influential restaurants to have ever existed in the capital. Alumni of this hallowed, whitewashed spot in Farringdon have spread far and wide through London and beyond, taking with them a passion for seasonal British produce, the desire to fill their menus with unusual cuts of offal and game (the "nose-to-tail" philosophy), and - perhaps more importantly than anything else - a cool confidence in stripped-back, no-nonsense presentation which informs just as much the attitude of the front of house as anything on the plate.

It seems extraordinary not only that one restaurant has so many direct descendants but that so many of them - in fact pretty much all you'd care to mention - are so incredibly good. Look back on the blog for reviews of any in that list above and you'll find places of class and charm, serving seasonal modern British food that has come to define what it means to eat out in London in these past 10-15 or so bewildering, game-changing years.

Perhaps, then, knowing that head chef Ruairidh (pronounced "Rory") Summers, who has leant his surname to this charmingly bare-bones operation above an Irish pub on Kilburn High St, was previously sous at St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields is enough of a qualification in of itself. He's ex- St. John, so of course it's going to be good. What else do you need to know? Just get yourself a booking, hop on the Jubilee line and enjoy an evening of bright, seasonal modern British food. It's that simple.

Well, OK, if you insist, some highlights. We ate the entire menu so maybe I won't go into exhaustive detail on every dish, but I'll point out some of the must-order items, beginning with the house pickles, colourful and crisp with a perfect sweet-sour balance.

Cod's roe and radishes on toast, smooth as silk with bags of salty seafood flavour.

If I was to make one criticism of these asparagus it would be that the Ogleshield cheese hadn't quite been given enough heat on top; it would have been nice to have them draped in gooey melted cheese. However the spears themselves were wonderfully cooked - ever-so-slightly charred and with a good bite - and the layer of toasted pine nuts added a lovely malty note.

Ox heart, perfectly seasoned and tender, draped over a few pieces of artichoke hearts and dressed with green herbs, is the kind of dish that would make Fergus Henderson himself proud. These announced their arrival on the table with a heady aroma of grilled cow, the kind of thing you'd only normally experience in a top steakhouse, and even then not very often.

All the food at Summers is, as inspired by St John, unpretentious and accessible, but not to be confused with "simple". "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!", Dolly Parton famously said, and it surely takes a huge amount of skill and experience to know what to meddle with and what to leave well alone, to know how to do just enough to let the ingredients sing. This piece of hake was a fish masterclass; a delicate, golden brown skin, a dense, meaty flesh of bright white. It speaks of someone who knows exactly what to do to a good piece of fish but also what not to do, and just leave it there, beaming and brilliant on a bed of foraged seaside succulents.

Desserts are a side of the menu that I'm assured will get more attention and menu space as Summers settles into its space, but even now are off to a fantastic start. Egg tart with rhubarb was a typically St. John and solidly traditional pud, the body-temperature custard framed by a delicate biscuit crust, and the poached rhubarb presented in cute square chunks.

But even better was the strawberry ice cream, a more impressive example I've not found in many years here or abroad. The flavour was so astonishingly concentrated, the hit of jammy summer fruit so overwhelming, that it tasted something close to a sorbet, only a sorbet with that extra luxurious layer of soft, buttery dairy. The last time I ate something as affecting as this was a raspberry sorbet at Little Barwick House in Somerset, and that's probably no coincidence - there, too, was a singularly talented chef making the absolute most of peak summer fruit. Quite a thing. Quite a thing indeed.

With each new exciting opening by a St John alumnus (I've written about two now in the last couple of months) there's the hint of a temptation to get blasé about these things; that as each next corner of our city gets its own delightful little gastropub to call its own that we run the risk of getting used to the idea. Well, good. We should be getting used to the idea. Each corner of London, from Lewisham to Kilburn, from Islington to Stockwell, deserves a Summers - there should be one in every postcode, one pitstop on every commute home from work, somewhere to drink nice wine and enjoy good food and prove that London is the greatest food city on earth, like we always knew it was. And for all this, we have St. John to thank.


I was invited to Summers and didn't pay

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Hedone (revisited), Chiswick

For this blog to be any use to anybody - in fact for any restaurant critic, or guide, or Buzzfeed Top Ten Lobster Mac & Cheese list to be even the least bit useful - then we have to assume that there is such thing as an objectively nice place to eat. If we can all agree that eating soil is not fun, and that eating chocolate is, then surely we should also be able, as a species, to draw a fairly solid conclusion about the land inbetween these extremes; we are, after all, most of us after more or less the same thing - a good dinner.

Sometimes, though, I am baffled by restaurants that polarise opinion, both those that I think everyone should love but they don't, and equally those that people fall over themselves to lavish with praise and which leave me completely cold.

Take Hedone, for example, in Chiswick. I first visited five years ago, shortly after it opened, and suffered through an emotionally vacant precession of beige dishes, ostensibly using the finest produce Western Europe can provide and yet each so wanting of texture, colour and fun that I felt my soul shrinking with every passing minute. And yet in the subsequent years a certain devoted subset of Foodie Internet have repeatedly and sincerely praised the food at Hedone as being not just amongst the best in the country but genuinely world class.

They say that chef Mikael Jonsson goes to greater lengths than any other individual to find the very finest ingredients for his menus. They say said ingredients are treated to techniques that both compliment and amplify specific flavour profiles to the greatest possible effect. And they say, over and over again, that if you can't appreciate that this corner of West London is redifining modern gastronomy, that his towering achievement belongs in the history books, then you don't deserve to enjoy eating out at all and you should just stay at home with a Findus pancake thinking very hard about your life. OK, to be fair, they've never actually said anything about Findus pancakes, but the inference is pretty clear.

It's enough to leave a man who spends a good proportion of his time looking for the next big gastronomic high (me) with a severe case of the FOMOs, and so five years almost to the day I made another booking at Hedone, determined - desperate, in fact - to figure out if I really was a hopeless pleb or instead have some kind of tasting menu-based Damascene conversion.

Long story short, turns out I'm still very much a resident of Plebsville; a 2nd meal at Hedone was every bit as bewilderingly dull as the first. An amuse of tomato jelly tasted of... well, tomato jelly on a little biscuit; no more, no less. A dish of scallops and truffles - despite containing two of my favourite ingredients - conspired to be wobbly and thin, like eating something that needed finishing off on the grill. A slab of foie - again, usually something that couldn't fail to lift my spirits - was a big, boring, fatty chore. Nothing was hideous or even that wrong, it was just empty, cold, devoid of form and fun. It was, in short, the very opposite of why I eat out at all; if the best restaurants are life-affirming and generous of soul and spirit, this was dining by numbers, technically correct but emotionally bereft.

I'm not about to tread on the opinions of so many people who clearly - and for their own very good reasons - consider Hedone their Ultimate Restaurant. But it is odd, not to mention deeply frustrating, that I so obviously couldn't get out of Hedone the transcandental experience so many others had, people who I know for a fact have a huge deal of overlap with my own tastes when it comes to most other restaurants in town. In my original review I made the comparison with modern jazz; that somewhere at the back of my mind I knew there must be something in it, but that thing, whatever it was, will likely be forever out of my grasp. To some, John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" is a breathtaking work of staggering genius; to the rest of us it is just arrythmic, dischordant nonsense. I wish I understood it, but I don't.

In many ways of course, whether or not I or anyone else appreciates Hedone is a matter of supreme unimportance. They won't miss me (or many like me) as a customer and I won't miss them. I only mention any of it as a kind of thought experiment - that if it's possible for people to have such wildly different experiences of the same restaurant, in fact even of the same meal (my first visit was on the same table as one of the Hedone superfans I mentioned earlier), what use is restaurant criticism at all? Should I find something else to do with my spare time? In fact, don't answer that.

Anyway, excuse my existential wobble; normal service will be resumed in due course. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that we as people, as diverse and difficult as we are, can find anything in common at all, and that the occasional blip like Hedone is proof of nothing more than our diversity. I will leave the Pride of Chiswick to those better placed to enjoy it, and, as one anonymous commenter on my original review put it, "stick to searching for the perfect burger... and leave [the] real food to the adults". For now, I'll agree to disagree. But by God if anyone starts having a go at Tayyabs, there'll be hell to pay.

6/10 (again)

Hedone Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, 15 May 2017

Tapas Room, Broadway Market Tooting

I've never been short of reasons to visit Tooting; it is, after all, home of my beloved Apollo Banana Leaf, one of London's best (and best value) Sri Lankan restaurants; to Spice Village, the Tayyabs of the South, serving a fantastic menu of authentic Punjabi dishes; and a whole host of other interesting South Indian and Sri Lankan joints all up and down Tooting Road. It's a genuine food destination, and the fact it's only 20 minutes on the 219 bus from my house is, for someone otherwise stuck with the less-than-inspiring selection of restaurants on Lavender Hill (Mien Tay excepted), a real godsend.

But now, Tooting has "gone all Brixton" and the indoor Broadway Market (not to be confused with its namesake in Hackney, or indeed Tooting Market which is also something different) these days plays host to the kind of eclectic group of music stores, bottle shops and counter restaurants that will be very familiar to anyone who's ever wandered through Market Row SW9.

One of the newest arrivals in Broadway is the Tapas Room, a little side project from the Donostia Social Club gang and so already bearing quite a good pedigree. The menu is short - only 3 hot dishes, the rest of it mainly cheese and charcuterie - and simple; there's no leg of jamón ibérico de bellota being carved, for example (there's no room, for a start), and no fancy cuts of presa or secreta seared in a charcoal-fired Josper grill. It's closer, in fact, to the kind of stripped-back tapas bar you might find on the streets of Spain than the big-name flagship London-Spanish restaurants such as José or Barrafina.

And yet, in simplicity there is often great beauty. Pan con tomate is basically the Tapas Room in a single dish - bright and cheery, straightforwardly enjoyable but also clearly with a good knowledge of Spanish food having gone into it, it was the best I've tried since Barrafina, and as anyone who's ever tried that will tell you, that's a hell of a compliment. Everything was right about this - excellent quality tomatoes seasoned with big crystals of sea salt, a faint burn of garlic and - most importantly - lightly toasted ciabatta that's not too chewy. A pan con tomate masterclass.

Chicken liver parfait was also a fine example, with a good smooth, light texture and good rich flavour. It came with a pickled fig - presumably pickled in-house though don't quote me on that - which played the part of the chutney which would usually arrive with a chicken liver parfait.

If I was to criticise any aspect of this combined cheese and charcuterie platter - and I will, because that's why you're here - it would be to say that I do not like to see the cheeses touching each other on a board. Cheese is not like ice cream; you shouldn't be eating any more than one kind in one mouthful, and cross-contamination (especially with stronger cheeses) sullies the experience. That said, they were all good cheeses (Picos blue, a washed-rind manchego and a really lovely soft goats whose name I really should have made a note of), served at the correct temperature and so they just about got away with being stacked up like Jenga blocks. And the sausages were all great - a Catalonian fuet, an Iberico salsichon and Basque chorizo which all packed a huge flavour.

At the risk of repeating myself, both hot dishes were also, well, great. First white asparagus, gently charred on the grill and dressed in a romesco/pesto-style combo with a few toasted almonds on top, it was a perfect showcase for this seasonal delicacy.

And then, best-till-last, a giant slab of soft morcilla, toasted to crunchy on the edges but soft and fluffy inside, with a couple of fried quail's eggs on top like big cartoon eyes. Like everything that had come before, it was expertly constructed and confidently presented, unfussy but eminently enjoyable.

With so many fantastic Spanish restaurants in London at the moment, it's very easy, despite our best intentions, to get a bit blasé when yet another lovely little spot appears serving cheese and charcuterie and fried morcilla with quail's eggs. So it's important to never make the mistake of thinking running a place like this is easy - we just happen to have a huge number of very talented people here at the moment, who are serving some of the best Spanish food outside of Spain (and, let's face it, inside of Spain as well) for a price (under £20 a head for the food above) that only the most miserly would grumble at. Yes, there are fancier, more expensive and more elaborate places to eat Spanish food, but this is a cuisine defined by its sheer variety. Surely there's Tapas Room for everyone?


We were invited to Tapas Room and didn't pay.