Wednesday, 20 May 2015
As I mentioned in the other recent Paris post, there is always going to be a certain amount of risk involved in leaving the choosing of a restaurant in someone else's hands. Deciding where I'm going to eat is, after all, an activity that occupies 90% of my time (the rest of the time I'm actually eating, or asleep) and I consider myself, after all these years, to be quite good at it. It's one of my core skills, a key bullet point on my CV. "• Can choose a restaurant and not very often get it wrong."
And Rech was perhaps more of a risk than most, partly because it was a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant in Paris (the kind of place if I was spending my own money I'd avoid like the plague; I mean I like seafood but I also like not being bankrupt) but mainly because my only other experience of an Alain Ducasse restaurant didn't end well. To put it mildly.
Things started slowly. You shouldn't expect too much from cold amuses maybe but then, if they're not going to dazzle or excite, what's the point anyway? Starting off a fancy seafood meal with a teeny bowl of chopped sardine served with a small amount of cold seafood jelly (disconcertingly void of flavour, and welded to the glass as if it had been in situ for quite some time) doesn't perform any function other than to demonstrate you're not quite sure where your strengths lie.
Similarly sliced asparagus with seabass, I mean, it was fine but I would have felt much better about the meal as a whole had these first two courses been omitted. They both had that fridge-fresh, slightly confused aroma and sad, settled appearance of something having been plated a long time ago.
Fortunately, things picked up a bit. It's impossible not to be impressed by a vast platter of fruits de mer and this was as impressive as they come, with prawns, langoustine, rock oysters, brown shrimp, (tiny voice) whelks (I hate whelks) and some clams or cockles. Dipped in fresh mayonnaise and spritzed with lemon, it was all (whelks aside, I mean come on, they taste like snot) very good.
After we'd polished off as much of the seafood as we possibly could (I seem to remember there were a lot of whelks left over) the next course appeared, a signature Ducasse cocotte containing huge chunks of sweet Brittany lobster on a bed of some kind of grain - spelt? Lobster bisque was poured on top to liven it up a bit, but this was still a strangely unsatisfying dish, the spelt not really making a very good companion to the seafood, and it all a bit underseasoned. The lobster was good, but would have been even better presented in its shell as part of the previous course than dumped on hot porridge.
But then somewhat confusingly, the next dish, brill with morels, was really nice. Meaty, bright white fish and a pile of new season morels in one of those classical French cream sauces you'd almost forgotten existed amidst all the purées and foams of new-wave cooking. And like at La Regalade, I loved the way the morels soaked up so much sauce in their nooks and crannies that when you bit into them they exploded in the mouth.
The cheese course was just one type of Camembert, which could have been a bit disappointing for a cheese addict like me if a) we hadn't had so much cheese the rest of the trip I ran the risk of developing some sort of condition and b) it wasn't the single greatest Camembert I've ever tasted in my life. Which it absolutely was. I can tell you it was made in a town called Failaise in Normandy, and I can tell you it was aged in Paris for 22 days by master fromager Marie-Anne Cantin. But what I can't express in this post is just how deep and rich the aroma was, wet grass mixed with the monkey house at the zoo, combined with a beautiful complex flavour that ran and ran without being overwhelming or succumbing to harsh sulphur like so many old Bries and Camembers do. In a city with so many wonderful cheese shops (the next day we visited Fromagerie Laurent Dubois, where I would have spent the entire weekend if they'd let me), and a country with such an astonishing number of wonderful cheeses, to stand out takes supreme skill. This was a Camembert to rule them all.
Fruit salad is never likely to set pulses racing but was pleasant enough, with some pistachio ice cream, candied pistachios and mini meringues for colour and texture. And after that was their "famous" (their words, not mine) XL éclair, an impressive bit of pastrywork stuffed with chocolate ice cream. It, too, did its job well enough.
Perhaps the point of these press events isn't that everything is to any particular individual's taste, particularly not a restaurant snob like me whose back was up as soon as I heard the name Alain Ducasse and saw they were charging €76 for five courses. But in the end, even objectively I have to conclude that the food is not as good as that at the cosy little bistro we were taken to the day before, who even managed to squeeze in premium ingredients like asparagus and morels for a little under half the price as Le Rech.
It's a strange position to be in, after having studiously avoided Alain Ducasse restaurants for five years, finally being persuaded to try one again and being disappointed - again. Like the meal at the Dorchester back in 2010, none of it was horrible, it just wasn't worth the money, and while my emotions of having eaten for free at this one in Paris is of mild guilt (or is that gout, it's hard to tell these days), if I'd had to pay for it myself I would have not been happy at all. So I can't really recommend it to you, either. Go get your Camembert from Cantin direct, get your éclairs from your favourite local patisserie, and try this Timeout list for some cheap'n'cheerful seafood options. And what you save on lunch at Le Rech you can spend on a round of Pastis after dinner. Doesn't that sound like a lot more fun?
I was a guest at Le Rech as part of an organised press trip. Tickets were provided by Eurostar and included Business Premier meals by Raymond Blanc. Until we come up with a Paris version, download my app for the top 100 restaurants in London.
Tuesday, 12 May 2015
It has taken me a long time to get around to eating Stevie Parle's food, or at least making a proper meal of it. Waaay back in the day a group of bloggers were invited to the Dock Kitchen by the Observer, and I think I liked most of what we ate, but it was a joint thing with Thomasina Miers and wasn't really reviewable. Then more recently I went back for a special offal evening curated by Anissa Helou, which was lovely but again not a Parle menu. And I believe the food at his 2nd restaurant Rotorino is very good, except thanks to the involvement of Jonathan Downey (see paragraph 11), I couldn't go there either.
Which brings us to Craft, not involving anyone likely to send the boys round (I'm assured), and brand-spanking new just next to the O2. But don't let the location put you off; it's a beautiful building despite the main view being of London's biggest white elephant- sorry, dome, and it's so far removed from the truly diabolical collection of what I can only loosely call restaurants inside the main building (Frankie & Benny's, Garfunkel's, Las Iguanas, Harvester; it's like satan himself created a food court) it's a beacon of warmth and hope in this otherwise fairly depressing corner of town.
Things got off to a great start with the house breads. Most restaurants would have been more than satisfied to serve a fantastic moist sourdough alone, but Craft trumped that with a quite wonderful flatbread, piping hot straight out of the tandoor oven; like a naan only more delicate, less greasy. This was as moreish as almost any house bread I've had in recent weeks, really was top stuff.
The rest of the menu certainly had its highlights, but confusion reigned initially over the difference between a "snack" and a "starter" as neither on paper nor in reality was it very clear the difference. For example, this generous - and incredibly lovely - savoury scone topped with a superbly light duck liver paté and damsons is apparently a "snack" and costs a very reasonable £4.50. I wonder how many langoustine you get for your £20 from the "starter" menu? I'll probably never know.
So back to the "snacks" and this is Pigeon Pie, for £7.50 containing a huge slab of pink breast meat, bursting with flavour, encased in golden pastry lattice. In terms of the technique and ingredients it could hardly be faulted, but on a point of practicality I really needed a sharper knife to cut through it - even the finest pigeon breast is hardly going to cut with a spoon.
I mention the prices so far because it's at this point the whole "value for money" waters started to get a little more muddied. First up, Ross chicken, broth, curd dumplings, wild garlic (wait I'm not done yet), kombucha egg, pork scratchings (still not done), and pickled alexander (OK I'm done). I'm sure a huge amount of work went into this rather experimental fusion of cuisines, but it all ended up being a bit Kitchen Sink. Which is a shame because the chicken itself was gorgeous, plump and juicy and with a subtle smoke from the open grill. It didn't need much of the rest of it, in fact I'd argue hardly any of it, even the (rather nice) broth; just give me this chicken with a bit of green and some potatoes and you'd be staring down the barrel of a perfect plate of food. And £24?
Beef was also of very good quality, but at £32 for three small pieces is even further away from value. The lovage dressing was clever, I could see what they were trying to do, highlighting the minerally notes of the beef with this metallic-tasting herb, but it still was slightly more confusing than enjoyable, and I'm afraid I didn't enjoy the lumpy bonemarrow "bread sauce" at all; it was cold, gloopy and weirdly tasteless.
A £4 bowl of leaves was never going to set the world alight, and indeed didn't, but could have been at least a bit more memorable with extra dressing and more vigorous seasoning. "Fireplace Potatoes" were great though, with a delicate crunch outside and as creamy as the finest mash within.
With two cokes and two small glasses of 5.5% mead for extra hipster points, the bill came to £102.38. Now, I think that's too much, especially given we didn't even have desserts (or technically starters either, for that matter). But on the other hand, despite some wobbles, there were some genuinely memorable dishes, and this is at least food which is trying something new, has its heart in the right place, and I'm absolutely sure isn't cynically charging way more to customers than the ingredients cost to buy and cook. Certainly not once you factor in the lavish kitchen with its tandoor ovens and charcoal spits.
So what can be done? Buy cheaper meat? Buy in cheap bread? Employ fewer staff (I have one suggestion for the cull, after being constantly interrupted by inane chat throughout the evening)? No, none of these things, I'm sure. If this is how much this kind of thing costs then fine, good luck to them, and I hope they find enough people willing to pay it. And within reason I'd count myself amongst that number; by the standards of London 2015 this is still a dynamic, beautiful and eminently enjoyable restaurant. And let's face it, by the standards of the immediate area, it's a bloody Godsend.
Stuck for dinner ideas in London? Where to Eat London is £2.99, available from all good iTunes stores.
Monday, 11 May 2015
There's usually a point during a meal when you know whether things are going to end well, or if you're going to regret ever setting foot in a place. Usually that point occurs at the first bite of a starter; it is mainly about the food, after all, and if anywhere can't get that right, they may as well not bother. Sometimes you know even before you arrive; if you're being dragged to Las Iguanas on a Christmas Party for example, or (less commonly) if your blog readership votes you to a West-end themed restaurant.
On Friday, having stupidly done no research online and having allowed myself (against my better judgment) to be persuaded to deepest Chiswick to try a newish Italian restaurant, I knew as soon as I was presented with the menu. But before that, things were looking up. A lot of money has been spent converting what was once a recording studio, then a short-lived New York Italian grill, into a remarkably authentic sprawling Tuscan estate, with a large patio out front, a shop, a cosy front room with sofas and a fireplace and (most importantly) a large sky-lit restaurant stretching far, far away to yet another garden out back. It really does feel like the whole place has been lifted from the hills outside Siena, it's impressive stuff.
It's a shame, then, that the menu doesn't have a hundredth as much ambition as the décor. Essentially just a list of clichés at stinging markups, it's the kind of thing you will have seen before countless times in Italian restaurants around the country. Beef carpaccio with rocket and parmesan, burrata with tomato, spinach & ricotta ravioli, tiramisu, it's cookie-cutter stuff of the most unbelievably familiar kind.
True, there's nothing wrong with beef carpaccio or spinach and ricotta ravioli or any of those things, but to be charging these prices for something your customers will (even if they're not hopeless restaurant addicts like me) have had a million times before they will have to be very good indeed. And I'm afraid the food at Villa di Geggiano was anything but.
Four crostini with different toppings here, the best of which a sirloin tartare and the least impressive some chopped tomato and basil, but none of them inedible really. Chicken liver was a bit dense and cheap tasting, and the sirloin tartare needed more salt, but I did eat them. The bread itself tasted stale though, chewy and weak rather than delicate and brittle.
Grilled calamari was at least not chewy like it so often can be, but would have been better with a bit more aggressive crunch and colour from the grill; as it was this was just a couple of bits of oily squid, a fairly ordinary starter at a main course price of £13.
Pasta you'd hope would be a speciality of a Tuscan restaurant but was hugely disappointing. Both were rather clumsily thick, meaning to get al-dente in the middle they'd had to be still quite hard around the edges. My own prawn and spring onion ravioli contained a dry, mealy filling of indistinct flavour, in an underpowered seafood sauce. Spinach & ricotta had a similarly distressing, crumbly mouthfeel, though sage & butter is at least a more comfortable mix of ingredients than whatever was mixed with the prawn. Both came offered with a bowl of dry parmesan powder, like the 90s had never happened - if I'm paying £15 for six pieces of pasta, do you think it would be too much to expect Parmesan to be grated on from a block? Never mind taste of something?
I liked the ice cream desserts, particularly a hazelnut one and a lovely zingy citrus sorbet. The Tiramisu was far less impressive, not really any better than the one from Pizza Express but around the same price. But each were ordered mainly to fill our stomachs since what came before had been so underwhelming.
So it's not just the lack of ambition that hurt at Villa di Geggiano. Not every new Italian restaurant needs to have the innovation and fireworks of Zucca, Trullo, Artusi and the like, where Italian ingredients and methods are paired with cutting-edge London style and - crucially - a very modest asking price. For example, Bibo, not a million miles away in Putney, also serve a few classics such as buffalo mozarella and indeed spinach and ricotta ravioli, but they do it with such extraordinary skill and at such reasonable prices (their ravioli is £9, not £12) that you can't help being charmed by the whole affair.
No, I mainly didn't like Villa di Geggiano because they're serving food that isn't very good, and they're charging way too much for it. And they may have lovely staff and be blessed with one of the most handsome dining rooms in West London but that's hardly going to make up for it. Sorry.
If you stand outside Villa di Geggiano and fire up my app, it tells you to go to Bibo. You should.
Wednesday, 6 May 2015
The "concept" is so disastrously imbecilic even the thought of putting it into words is giving me hives, so I'll be brief. Remember that film Forrest Gump? About the man with some kind of learning disorder, not anything as unattractive as Asperger's or Down's Syndrome obviously (that would be box office Kryptonite) but that particular kind of Hollywood-retarded which basically means he talks slowly, loves his mama and unflinchingly does what other people tell him? Well, one of the stupifyingly unbelievable plot twists in this awful movie involves our "hero" taking command of an accidentally-successful fishing company. Bubba Gump Shrimp Company is a entire real-life restaurant chain based on a minor plot point in a terrible movie that last hit cinemas over twenty years ago. And it's shit.
Even if the food at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company had been any good - and it really, really wasn't - there'd still be a million other reasons to hate the place. The whole project is so disastrously flawed, the motivations for its existence so cynical and misguided, that even if this vast, ugly place sat empty of customers and its "kitchens" (or whatever you call an area where frozen food is deep fried and shovelled into paper cones) free of activity, it would still be a stupid waste of effort and space, a monument to boneheaded uselessness on a massive scale.
But add to this winning formula the kind of food usually advertised by Kerry Katona, at prices that would make a premiership footballer wince, and you have all the ingredients for a true disaster.
You enter, in the tradition of all crappy central-London tourist trash joints, through the gift shop. A nice man with a headset told us there was a 5-10 minute wait for a table which immediately made my heart sink ("Oh god, please don't let it be popular") but once upstairs we noticed with some relief and confusion about 2/3 of the tables were empty. Was the "wait" just a cynical way to get us to order a £12.49 bucket of weak margarita, while making the place seem in demand? I wouldn't put it past them at all.
Anyway, we were soon placed in a booth having the ordering system explained to us. On the table were two metal flip-signs, one reading RUN FORREST RUN and the other STOP FORREST STOP, the idea being if you wanted service you somewhat counterintuitively display the red STOP sign, otherwise staff were free to ignore you. In the end though, it served as little more than a lame reminder of the restaurant's rubbish concept, as every time you wanted anything so insignificant as a glass of water you had to turn the (large, cumbersome) sign over, wait for someone to notice, then make your order and - the real problem - remember to turn it back, as if you didn't another member of staff would rush over in the next few seconds to take your order again.
So far, then, so annoying. Then the food arrived. "Best Ever Popcorn Shrimp" looked at least generous at first glance, until on closer inspection you realised that most of the "shrimp" were actually deep-fried strips of red pepper made to look like seafood. So the red peppers tasted like greasy red peppers and the half a dozen or so "shrimp" (I'm using inverted commas because I'm not entirely convinced these things had ever seen an ocean) tasted of... well, nothing. Cooking oil. And then once we'd squeezed a lemon over them, cooking oil and lemon. Dipping sauces were diabolically sweet and artificial tasting, with less personality than the little sachets you get at McDonalds.
It got worse. Even on paper this, the Worst Salad In The World, is indigestible - lettuce, strawberries (?), pears (??), raspberries (please stop) four or five pieces of horrid cheap shredded chicken that tasted of wet cotton wool, all bound together with a sweet dressing of some kind and, just because the ingredients hadn't quite been batshit mental enough up to this point, a weirdly tiny amount of feta cheese crumbled on top. There's no excuse for this dish; no dimension in the multiverse where it could have ever been a success. I can't reconcile in my rational brain the idea that somewhere, at some point in time, someone threw this madly inappropriate bunch of ingredients together and subsequently decided to charge people £11.25 to eat it. This is not a salad, it's a cry for help.
"Crab stuffed mushrooms" didn't appear to have anything to do with crab at all, but maybe this was a blessing. Swimming in a strange, thin, chemically sauce they were an alarming colour of off-yellow and tasted like grilled squash balls. Revolting, and yet by the standards of the rest of the food, they could almost be considered a highlight.
Of the mains, probably the "Dixie Fishwich" was the least aggressively ghastly, because you can't really mess up a tomato, and the frozen chips didn't contain, I don't know, gravel or razor blades or anything. But the fish itself was overcooked and mushy, and the bun was truly dreadful, cheap processed bread left to go stale.
"Shrimper's Heaven" was three cones of vaguely prawn-y brownfood, one cone of fries, and three pots of disgusting plastic slime that defied all attempts to explain or excuse. If this is heaven, then I'll see you in hell with my foie gras and my Robert Johnson records, no regrets.
And oh God, there was still more to come. Sad, soggy fritters of fried chicken sat on top of a huge mount of (actually not too bad) mashed potato, a strange, grey sweetcorn and a little pot of, well it was described rather optimistically as "gravy". It was at this point I began to lose my mind a little. The gravy tasted of literally nothing - I can't explain it any other way. It was if someone had thickened a couple of tablespoons of water with cornflour. I kept dipping the end of my fork in it and tasting it, over and over again, hardly able to believe what was happening. "It doesn't taste of anything. Why doesn't it taste of anything?" I remember repeating, over and over again. My friends each did their best to talk me down.
"Is this the worst meal you've ever had?", was the inevitable question asked as our barely picked-at plates were taken away and the last drops of diluted margarita were teased from novelty branded cocktail shakers. And the horrifying truth is that it probably isn't - the Hard Rock Café is still the most uncomfortable I've ever been in a restaurant, because on top of the terrible food at mad prices the service was also belligerent and mendacious. The staff at Bubba Gump were all lovely, serving with a commendable amount of positivity given what they were having to deal with, and at least there weren't any animatronic gorillas.
But comparisons between one nakedly cynical theme restaurant and another nakedly cynical theme restaurant are a pointless, and self-defeating, distraction. The fact any of them exist at all is, to misquote Charlie Brooker, an indelible blemish on the world's already questionable track record, and if I'm ever made prime minister, shutting down anywhere exploiting gullible tourists in a prime West End location will be my number one priority (or maybe second, just after the demolition of Clapham Junction station). Until that happens though, I can't do more than implore anyone who reads this to tell anyone who will listen not to eat at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. It really is the pits.
If you find yourself stood outside Bubba Gump's wondering whether to risk it, firstly punch yourself in the face until you realise what an idiot you've been then quickly download my app to find somewhere good.
Friday, 1 May 2015
You'd be forgiven for thinking the last thing East London needed was another fried chicken joint. Scourge of the high street, bane of the nation's health, they are seemingly beaten only by betting shops in their ability to suck the joy and life out of a place, and have a similarly virus-like capacity to multiply and conquer an urban center. Where once were charity shops and Poundlands are now Tennessee Fried Chickens and William Hills. It's not exactly progress.
But not all fried chicken shops are created equal. Proper fried chicken from the Southern States of America, the kind popularised by Colonel Sanders before he sold his share of the business and standards slipped in the 1960s, was by all accounts - and is, if you know where to find it - a wonderful thing. The closest I've come to the real deal is Streetcar Merchants of San Diego, whose salt-brined chicken, served white or dark to order, was almost enough to banish the memory of Chicken Cottage forever. My friend Helen wrote about it here; you can see why we fell in love with the place.
Even if Chick'n'Sours served nothing but seasoned drumsticks and thighs it would still be better than anywhere else in London doing the same, thanks partly to some extraordinarily good fowl (good strong bones and plenty of rich dark meat, a million miles away from the usual broiler birds) but also to a nifty hand with a pressure-fryer, which welds the coating onto the skin and ensures every bite has a mix of crunch, seasoning and good, firm flesh. This is extremely good fried chicken, enough reason to visit in itself.
On top of that though, the menu offer a range of variations on an Asian-inspired theme that (somewhat against expectations, I have to admit) compliment the house fry whilst also making the whole lot feel more attractively London, or at least more Kingsland Road. I love chicken with biscuits and gravy, Southern style, but I also love crunchy fried chicken doused in sharp Thai chilli jam, toasted shallots, Thai basil, mint and spring onion. And in this part of town, the light, fresh notes of colourful SE Asian herbs and spices seem a lot more relevant.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with your bog standard breadcrumbed chicken fillet with sweet mayonnaise in a bun (in fact even modern KFC's version has a certain ersatz charm) but how much better is this beauty, a vast juicy chunk of breast meat with Korean mayonnaise, chilli vinegar and coleslaw? A lot better, I'd say, even at the £10 price point given the huge amount of meat inside.
Salads are many and varied, continuing the Asian theme. Szechuan aubergine had a beguiling mix of spices and chilli oil, texture provided by some striking monochrome sesame seeds. "Yaw bean slaw" was light and fresh and had an addictive miso savouriness, again a twist on a classic that was different not just for the sake of being different. But my favourite was pickled watermelon with peanut and coriander, an astonishing mix of chilli heat and watermelon cool, studded with crunchy peanuts, that hit just about every pleasure point a salad could aim for. Only a broccoli and green bean arrangement seemed out of place - nice enough but a bit soggy and forgettable.
Mostly, though, Chick'n'Sours gets things right. Wines are by (here's that name again) Zeren Wilson, a man who has the ability to conjure up wines of personality and power for a meagre £18 a bottle. The "sours" are lovely sharp fruity cocktails served in half pint glasses, colourful and ice cold and so easy to drink you risk an ice cream headache. Even the fries are good - cooked in beef dripping, aggressively seasoned and just soft enough rather than the cardboard-crunch so many places favour over flavour. Try them dipped in the blue cheese sauce - you'll never want them to end.
Perhaps objectively there isn't anything radically new going on here - fried chicken concepts have come and gone over the years, you can get things like Kara-age in most decent Japanese restaurants (Tonkotsu's is good), similarly Mama Lan's do a good line in crunchy Chinese style wings and for Southern US, Lockhart's is hard to beat. But you don't have to reinvent the wheel to be very good at what you do, and there are enough terrible attempts at even high-end fried chicken (if that's not a contradiction) to demonstrate that getting it right - and certainly getting it so very right as Chick'n'Sours do - is not at all easy.
I loved Chick'n'Sours not because of what it's trying to be but what it is - a relentlessly entertaining, energetic little operation serving near-faultless fried chicken complimented by a range of punchy pan-Asian sides that are never anything less than enormous fun to eat. It has runaway success written all over it.
There's every chance Chick'n'Sours will appear in the next version of the app. Meantime, see where else is good in Dalston by downloading it here.