Thursday, 24 April 2014

River Café, Hammersmith

Some restaurants have regulars. Some restaurants have fans. Some restaurants inspire the kind of loyalty that have customers happily queuing down the street for just the chance to spend money within their hallowed walls.

But surely there's only one joint in London inspires a kind of fervour that's best described as cultish. How do I even begin to write a post about the River Café, probably the closest thing London has to a restaurant sacred cow, whose customers regularly describe the place as "the best restaurant in the world" without fear of being rebuked, and whose staff are so fanatically loyal a stint of 5 or more years is normal in an industry where most people are doing well to last 5 weeks. The merest mention on Twitter I was headed there for dinner prompted a dozen feverish replies whose terrifying subtext - "say something bad, I DARE YOU" - could hardly have been more obvious.

So I approach the following with some tripidation. Let me be clear from the outset (he says changing the locks on his front door and booking a flight to Rio) there was nothing I ate that could be described as disappointing. When you get lovely fresh ingredients, cook them according to years of international top-flight experience and serve them with a smile, well, only a real curmudgeon would feel the need to sit down and pick fault. But if the best Italian food is about cooking great ingredients, simply, surely that rustic approach should be reflected even slightly in the prices? Since when did a meal for two of pasta, grilled fish and dessert cost nearly £300?

Maybe it's just my Hedone Complex flaring up again. I had just heard so many breathless superlatives about the place beforehand that my own experience, when it did arrive, would struggle to match the place I'd invented in my head. I sat there baffled, uncomprehending, despondent. The famous "cevenne onion and pear" tasted like what it was - a boiled onion on a plate, with some pear shaved on top. Scallops were scallops. Chocolate tart was chocolate tart. I was prepared to believe - still am - that I had some part of my brain missing which renders me incapable of distinguishing merely a "very good" ingredient with a "world class" ingredient, but if that's the case, I can't be the only one?

Langoustines at the River Cafe, then. A grand fan of six of the finest Scottish beasties, smoky from the grill, served with a pile of salty agretti (that's saltwort to you and me) and drizzled in (presumably very good) olive oil. They were absolutely perfectly cooked, not too dry or too watery, and each lump of tail meat came away from the shell as a satisfying, bright-white whole. Now there's nothing the River Cafe can do about mother nature, but each animal contained about a teaspoonful of meat, and the plate cost £30.

Asparagus next, and here a more generous portion - eight spears, sat on a pleasant cheese sauce, under grated parmesan. They were nice in the way that asparagus are often quite nice, insofar as they taste of asparagus. If you like asparagus then you'd probably like these. £19.

At some point some artichoke hearts frito arrived, which were very pleasant too. Surface dry as a bone, inside soft and moist. If you like artichoke hearts, then... etc.

OK, so admittedly the pasta courses were more impressive. Crab and chilli spaghetti has a marvellous texture - bouncy and with a good firm bite - and there was lots of crab. Nettle panzotti (sort of folded ravioli) had an equally accomplished touch. Each were lovely, rustic plates of traditional Italian food, technically faultless but still rather... familiar. I mean to say, if you went to a good Italian restaurant you'd expect the pasta to be good, wouldn't you? What you might not expect is for five vegetarian ravioli to be £17...

I'm sorry to keep going on about the numbers. Plenty of you will not mind paying the extra for what many undoubtedly consider the best Italian food in the country, and I honestly wish I felt the same. I am aware we have it easy in London - competition, and the fact that we still have a lot of "selling" to do when persuading British people to eat out, has traditionally kept prices relatively low and forced wily restaurateurs into more inventive ways of making a profit - turning tables in no-reservations places, for example, or using cheaper ingredients in more innovative ways. £30 starters and £60 main courses are something approaching normal in Paris, and even a restaurant where the starters "are around the €140 mark" finds its bookings sheet full.

But this is not a 3* Parisian temple of gastronomy serving lobster and caviar ten ways and with thirty members of staff for each customer. This is a riverside Italian in Hammersmith, serving grilled meats and fish and pasta. And while prices for the first couple of courses were merely uncomfortable, the cost of each one of the secondi at River Cafe could have bought you an entire four-course meal in most other trattoria in the capital. A whole roast pigeon did indeed taste lovely, pink inside and with a great salty, browned skin, wrapped in speck and on top of a slice of bread soaking up the roasting juices. It was, undoubtedly, a very good pigeon dish, the kind of thing you'd happily pay, I don't know, even up to £25 for. This was £37.

Three big, soft scallops, grilled to a perfect browned crust and surrounded by broad beans, chilli and rainbow chard, were also a fantastic eat. And I don't know enough about where to get the best scallops, or what makes a "perfect" broad bean to know exactly how much these raw ingredients cost. All I can tell you is that I know how much a dish of scallops, broad beans and chard cost in most other restaurants I've been to, and that figure has never threatened to approach £36.

The "chocolate nemesis" cake is apparently famous. I tried a bit of it - tasted alright to me but then I'd never normally order chocolate cake in a restaurant. I preferred my lemon tart, with its grilled top and lovely smooth fresh lemon filling. This was a half portion for £4.5, and though maths was never my strongest subject at school a quick calculation estimates the price of that full pie to be about £60.

Oh I do remember one of the cheeses being particularly impressive - a Robiola goat's milk cheese from Piemonte, all pungent and gooey. And the bill lists three scoops of ice cream which I don't remember at all, but that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen.

But maybe I'd better stop there. It is not that the River Café is a bad restaurant - it clearly is not, and the staff should be rightly proud of everything they've achieved over the years (except perhaps Jamie Oliver, but I won't get into that now). But all these achievements in service and sourcing and wine - oh yes, the wine; the lovely Emily O'Hare, who I first met at a charity dinner a year or two ago, presides over a fantastic list and her enthusiasm when talking about it is infectious - is overshadowed by a pricing structure that goes all the way up to the bumper of "we saw you coming" then accelerates past it screeching with laughter and flicking you the Vs into its rear-view mirror. It's a shame, but as I say, this may just be me, as I was in Hedone, blank-faced and uncomprehending as everyone else around enjoyed the time of their lives. Well, good luck to 'em. I'll be in Donna Margherita.


River Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Bibo, Putney

It's the cosmopolitan dream, isn't it, to have a reliable, relatively inexpensive restaurant about 10 minute's walk from the house, where it's neither regularly indimidatingly empty or so full you struggle to find a walk-in table, and where the food is never less than decent. By necessity, the food can't really be much more than decent either, as then you'd be attracting nerdy foodies like me from across the capital, with our cameras and Twitter accounts and before you know it, they're winning Michelin stars, doubling the prices, and managing a 6-month waiting list. I'm looking at you, Harwood Arms.

So the trick of a good neighbourhood restaurant is to stay slightly under the radar, do what you do well but without too much of a fanfare, and make a healthy living turning happy locals into regulars. It's every restaurateur's dream as well, I imagine, to run such a place - to host a buzzy room of contented diners, attended to by a small team of enthusiastic staff doing the job they love, and supported by a kitchen turning out the kind of dishes they'd want to eat themselves.

It is for all these reasons that I really shouldn't be telling you about Bibo. True, being a brand new restaurant in wilds of Putney it would probably appreciate a step up the publicity ladder, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time before it's got a steady stream of local bookings and a healthy balance sheet. If Bibo became a "destination" restaurant, you wouldn't be able just pop in on a Wednesday evening for a plate of pasta and a tiramisu, you'd have to book months in advance and give your credit card details, copy of your birth certificate and agree to take the 5pm-7pm slot at the table next to the toilets with the wonky leg. Not that Bibo would do anything like have a table next to the toilets with a wonky leg, but you know.

Anyway here goes. N'duja crocchette had a good amount of spice, and a pleasant crust/filling ratio. Only £3.50 for five sizeable pieces too, which was generous.

Chicken liver crostini had a fantastic earthy flavour; it's not difficult to enjoy even quite mediocre chicken liver pate (I don't think), but when it's done well it's one of my favourite things to order in an Italian restaurant. Texture was provided by delicate salty slivers of grilled pancetta, and chopped capers cut through the fat in the pate mix. Good work.

Next, as is customary in any decent Italian restaurant, we were encouraged to prepare our stomachs for the impending secondi with a vast amount of pasta. Spinach and ricotta ravioli was the best, glistening with oil, dressed with fried sage and containing just enough mixture to give you something to bite into, but then I would say that because ordering it was my idea. Rabbit cappelletti had lovely chunks of pancetta and bright green peas, and octopus tagliarini was good too, all about the meaty chunks of braised octopus and the sea-rich stock they bathed in. If I was to take issue with anything I could say the pasta was a little thicker, firmer, more heavy-handed than it's possible to find, but then perhaps this was entirely deliberate (see first paragraph).

In the end, three pasta courses put paid to any fleeting ideas we might have had about secondi, and though I'm sure the ox cheek and marrow brushetta and the lemon sole with anchovies are lovely (they certainly sound it), we skipped straight to desserts. And boy, am I glad we did, because these bambolini (mini doughnuts) were too good to reluctantly force down on a full stomach. The pastry was impressive enough alone - warm and light and moist inside, fried to order and timed just right - but the amalfi lemon curd they came in was the kind of thing legends are made of. If every new restaurant deserves a signature dish that gets people talking - the Harwood Arms venison scotch egg for example, or the veal chop at Zucca - this lemon curd ensures Bibo's will be the bambolini. Plus, "Bibo's bambolini" has a great ring to it, doesn't it? Sounds like an Italian pop song.

I'm not going to show you my photo of the ice cream as it truly is terrifying, like one of the cuts made to a 15-certificate found-footage horror film, but they were home made and involved the words "salted caramel" and "rhubarb" so I'm sure you can fill in the gaps yourselves.

Now, I'll be the first to admit we could have taken it a bit easier on the booze, and yes, the Fernet was my idea, but most of the other glasses were expertly chosen by blogger and general wine person Zeren Wilson, who is overseeing that kind of thing in the first few weeks while Bibo finds its piedi. I've long since decided the best way of approaching a wine list is to ignore it completely and just let the experts do their job, and the glasses we enjoyed this evening were top notch, particularly a low-alcohol dessert fizz I've completely forgotten the name of. "Low-alcohol dessert fizz" should get you halfway there though.

As I said before, Bibo deserves to do well, and is probably going to do well. It's not too expensive, staff are lovely, the room is - well the room is a bit odd actually, with all the action happening towards the back and a large underused bar at the front making the place look empty from the street when it isn't - but apparently there are plans afoot to redesign this. The point is, it's a nice, normal, friendly local restaurant that should serve the people of Putney very well as long as the rest of London can just please leave them alone to get on with it. So, yes, ignore all of the above. Forget I said anything. As you were.


Bibo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Romesco, San Diego

Back in what has firmly become my second city and home-from-home, San Diego, and a belated write-up of what is fast becoming my favourite restaurant there - Romesco, in Bonita. You may remember me waxing lyrical about the extraordinary Mision 19 in Tijuana last year, a world-class celebration of the finest Mexican food (and believe me, the competition in that category is quite fierce) from chef Javier Plascencia. Romesco actually predates the Tijuana joint by a few years, but is still the only Plascencia place in USA - all the rest are in his home town - so for Californians wanting to try innovative and exemplary Mexican food without negotiating a border crossing, it's a great place to start.

Which is odd, because on paper (literally, I mean the menu), Romesco is doing a lot of things very wrong. It calls its food Mexican-Spanish (or even "Mexiterranean", would you believe it), but has a vast, rambling list of dishes encompassing Greek salads, lasagne, risotto, tapas, tacos and steaks enough to strike the fear of God into anyone who's ever suffered at the hand of so many other unfortunate "fusion" restaurants. I'm usually the first to ridicule anywhere that claims it can cook, say, Malaysian, Thai and Chinese food to a competent level in the same kitchen but those cuisines at least all share the same subcontinent; how on earth would Mexican-Spanish be any more successful?

The answer, to everyone's great relief, not least my own, is a whole lot. Romesco dismisses worries about the oddness of its concept and geographical fuzziness with food that, sampled over two visits and at least two dozen dishes, is rarely less than stellar. Perhaps this success is down to the wise decision to largely keep the Spanish and Mexican elements (and American, and Greek, and Italian, and so on) distinct but separate, rather than attempting too many linguini tacos or chicken mole paellas. So despite being somewhat experimental, a tamarind margherita, for example, is unmistakeably Mexican - and very nice.

House bread (a French baguette, just in case they hadn't quite covered every single country in the world just yet) went remarkably well with pickled garlic (Lebanese? Syrian?), bouncy and crunchy and bright.

OK so maybe some dishes are literally Mexican-Spanish fusion after all. "Grandma's Tacos de Fideo" (I hope she doesn't want them back) were made with that noodly stuff the Catalans use, and also included Spanish chorizo, a rarity in this part of the world more used to the chilli paste (think Mexican n'duja). And very nice they were too.

Even better were the beef cheek tacos - no fancy fusion business here, just a great big glistening load of heavenly-rich beef, and a steamer full of those fresh masa flour casings that make Californians go all wobbly and sing the Star Spangled Banner.

Croquettas were, if we're going to be brutal, perhaps not quite as impressive as examples I've tried in London - using Cheddar cheese can't have helped - but a fluffy aioli perked them up a bit, and they were still enjoyed.

And then. And. Then.

And then the bone marrow sope.

Try and imagine - you won't be able to, but try - three golden brown, piping hot cylinders of roast bone containing a marrow so unbelievably smooth and rich and intense it was like eating the result of an experiment designed to distil the very best beef on the planet into a single mouthful. Each perched on a neat little circle of crisp cornmeal, and topped with a sprig of greaselessly deep-fried curly parsley, delicate enough to collapse into essence after little more than a hard stare.

We're not done yet. Next imagine a little bowl of chile de arbol sauce, with the haunting flavour of wood fires and citrus, presented alongside. Next to that, another bowl of what Romesco coyingly refer to as "beef glaze" but which goes nowhere near describing the wonder, the utter life-changing glory of this, God's own demiglace, a silky, heady reduction of red wine and beef stock so extraordinary simply knowing it exists makes me feel infinitely better about the state of humanity.

Then imagine combining all of the above and enjoying it as a single, divine entity. A symphony of animal and vegetable, taste and texture. Impossibly good.

Sorry I think I lost myself for a second there, but if there's one dish that was worth travelling 5,000 miles for it's that bone marrow sope, and I'm going to make it my mission to eat it on every future trip to San Diego.

Prawns - sorry, shrimp - in garlic butter were authentically Spanish, and perfectly cooked so as to retain a good firm texture. And even the desserts didn't disappoint, fluffy fresh churros served with a good homemade ice cream and creamy dulce de leche dip.

What else? Oh, the service - this, too, was something special, our waiter on our most recent visit (I'll namecheck - he was called Alfonso) a relaxed, seasoned career professional of a kind that exist hardly anywhere else in the world. And the icing on the churros was the bill - with the wine list being half price on Wednesdays we got a whole bottle of Californian Pinot Noir for about a tenner.

Looking back at the Romesco menu even now, after two trips, I still can't quite understand how it all works. This bonkers collection of influences and inspirations should have been, and heaven knows usually is, a disaster. Javier Plascencia is a supreme chef, of course, but being a skill in the kitchen is one thing; making a success out of a fideua taco is quite another.

But, in the end, who cares how it works. You need to know only this - it does work, and it's good value, and the staff are lovely and it's all just... just really, really good. Sorry, I've run out of words. I was thinking about the bone marrow sope again.


Romesco Baja Med Bistro on Urbanspoon

My flights to San Diego were very kindly provided by British Airways. Prices start around £717 return.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Hibiscus, Mayfair

I've been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks, mainly because I've been too busy enjoying myself in California (more on which soon) but partly also because I thought it might be an idea to let the whole blaggergate thing die down before posting a long and gushing post on a free meal in one of the best restaurants in town.

I don't really have anything to add to much that's already been said on the whole sordid affair, but briefly, while posting (accidentally) the mobile phone number of a blogger on Twitter was unadvisable (although having admitted their mistake the retweeters in question still haven't had their accounts reinstated, which is insane), the act of soliciting a free meal in return for a positive review (as the blogger in question unquestionably did) is well worth highlighting, and is the kind of ethically bankrupt thing previously mainly only print journalists had been guilty of. So let's not have one idiot give anyone the excuse to drag us down to their level, eh bloggers?

You'll excuse my ironic tone, but really, the furore over the fact that some crappy food bloggers are now joining their crappy print cousins in offering positive reviews in return for free meals is not one that should take anyone by surprise. I grew up in Liverpool, where our local rag the Echo regularly ran an "everything is awesome" column where even the most diabolically bad restaurant would be given a po-facedly upbeat writeup in return for a boozy jolly for their journalists. National restaurant critics, lucky enough to be paid for their meals AND their words, can claim, if they want, that a bloggers opinion on a meal is "worthless" if it's comped (as one of them recently did) but surely the point is just to be honest, no matter who paid the bill?

Anyway, whether you consider this post and the opinions contained within to be "worthless", or whether based on past form you can see it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference, well, I hope it at least provides a brief distraction.

Of course, it would have been a lot handier for me, if not for them, if my meal at Hibiscus had been anything less than blindingly, unassailably brilliant. Then at least I could look like I had my critical head on in the face of such PR generosity. But no, from the word go this meal was one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. It began, after some pretty little textural amuses and some fluffy, cheesy gougere, with a seemingly innocuous basket of house bread.

From the first bite, something was different about this bread. A crust like the finest French pastry, delicate and flaky with only enough strength to make each bite the greatest of rewards, it held a softly-sticky, gently-vinegared crumb that I can barely imagine being better. To cut a long story short, it was perfect. As well as that, it was strangely familiar. I asked whether Hibiscus make their own bread.

"No, the chef gets it made by a friend of his" was the first, rather cryptic response. But when the chef himself appeared to do a start-of-evening meet-and-greet, I took the opportunity to dig a little deeper. "It's from Hedone", he said, and then the pieces fell together. Hedone are in collaboration with Antidote, where I'd had equally stunning bread a week previously. I've learned since they're going to start selling it direct to the public; if it's £50/loaf (which wouldn't surprise me if it's anything to with Hedone) it would still be a bargain.

So, still cooing over the house bread, we began the tasting menu proper with "Chestnut mushroom, coconut & curry 'en cocotte'", and if you think that sounds a bit weird, you're not wrong. The mushrooms were clearly of high quality, but didn't sit well, in my opinion, with the strangely bitter coconut froth above. Still, I'm prepared to believe this could be a personal thing, and as a palate cleanser it may have had a different job to do than simply be blandly enjoyable.

Fresh crab and white turnip had marvellous sweet crab (the attention to ingredient quality at Hibiscus is obvious even to a pleb like me) and the little blobs of smoked olive oil cream were a lovely counterpoint.

Scallop sashimi (sorry, "carpaccio") with thinly-sliced black radish (translucent and with a soft crunch to contrast the scallops) was another masterclass in sourcing, the scallops having bags of flavour and immaculately presented. Highlight of this dish though were the neat blobs of truffle & walnut oil, which added a luxurious extra level of flavour. I think it was with this dish that we were given these sort of prawn cracker things made out of scallops (scallop crackers?) which I wasn't a huge fan of, but you have to admire their technique.

Two meaty asparagus tips next, coated in toasted hazelnuts and resting on another healthy dose of black truffle. A joyful mix of textures, and who doesn't love truffle, but still the main draw were the asparagus, an incredible deep green colour (not that you can tell from my photos, but that goes without saying) and not a hint of stringiness.

While I consider most of what goes on in high-end kitchens to be nothing short of black magic, there's a certain extra quotient of awe reserved for those who can turn their hand with equal skill to fish as they do to, say, meat or vegetables. A properly cooked steak or jerusalem artichoke can be a thing of beauty, sure, but there is something wonderfully disorenting about a fish steak that has been cooked in such a way as to highlight those mysterious, almost alien, ocean flavours. This halibut, immaculately timed and attractively sat amidst an ocean-metaphor of frothy sauce, had exactly that effect - it was like setting off on a sea voyage from the comfort of your Mayfair restaurant table.

Look at the profile of that duck - even my photography has failed to dampen its magnificence. A dark, salty crust, a not-too-thick layer of melting fat, and a bouncy, pink flesh that cut like butter. Roast tardivo (radicchio to you and me) provided bitterness, a blog of beetroot earthiness, and eel an interesting extra salty/smoky note. Great stuff.

An apple, celeriac & chestnut pre-dessert, much like the mushroom & coconut thing earlier, made up for in innovation and ability to discombobulate what it lacked in straightforward pleasure. Sometimes, a dish becomes a talking point for reasons other than plain solid technique - whether polarising or disorienting or shocking, there are different ways to impress.

The final dish, a chocolate tart, was perhaps the only dish that could be accused of being slightly unambitious. It was very good, don't get me wrong, but it's hardly the kind of thing that sits comfortably next to the shooting stars and fireworks that had come before. The only nod to the range of meticulously-sourced ingredients from the other dishes was an ice cream made from "Indonesian Basil", but I can't honestly say I could tell the difference. That all said, it disappeared in seconds and I loved it. So maybe I'll just shut up and stop complaining.

Right then, so, how did I do? Did any of the above look like it had come out of the local Frankie & Benny's (my photography notwithstanding) and I'm being especially nice about it because I got it for free? Am I capable of separating the business of who pays the bill from the skill of the chef in the kitchen? Have I completely wasted my time and yours? Well, if I have, at least it didn't cost either of us anything. And regardless of my defense of the practice of accepting comped meals (not asking for them in return for a positive review, which is obviously not on) I still will continue to keep a lid on the number of freebies I do write up, just because things are generally more interesting that way.

Meantime, the only other thing I have to say is, stick with the opinions of a blogger or critic you trust, disregard anyone, paid or unpaid, that doesn't declare when something has been given for free, and - oh yes - go and book a meal at Hibiscus. It's really rather good.


I was invited to review Hibiscus, so there.

Hibiscus on Urbanspoon