Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Blacklock, Soho


I quite like the idea of a subterranean, clandestine chop joint (that's chop joint, not clip joint - although there's plenty of those in Soho) but there's a fine line between inconspicuous and totally bloody invisible. I spent a good ten minutes micro-adjusting my position on the little red pin where Google Maps told me I should be, completely failing to see which anonymous black door might contain a restaurant and it was only when a friend of mine appeared from one after an early lunch I noticed a tiny handwritten sign, ink on cardboard, taped to a back wall - BLACKLOCK. So, this was the place, after all.

Inside, and down some stairs, things get more familiar. Soho basements often have a wonderful way of twisting a restaurant into strange shapes - claustrophobic narrow corridors, nooks and crannies (think Pitt Cue, or Pizza Pilgrims) - and Blacklock makes the most of theirs, with a collection of tables on different levels, a cute bar in one corner and an open kitchen at the back. There's even some natural light on some attractive whitewashed-brick snugs on one side, where you can look up and watch people walk to and fro on the pavements above. Handy for photographs, too, obviously.


The menu style is in some debt - I'm sure they won't mind me saying - to fellow meat-specialists Pitt Cue, with a short list of house specials and some sides, but actually the brains behind Blacklock come from the Hawksmoor stable, and their chefs did some chop shop prep at the Air Street branch.


Given that pedigree, then, it's probably not surprising the main event at Blacklock - the chops - are absolutely stunning. On two visits I tried the beef, lamb and pork versions and they could hardly be faulted, being perfectly seasoned and expertly timed on the charcoal grill to get a delicate dark crust and flesh so tender it dissolved in the mouth. It's hard to pick a favourite of the three but perhaps if I had to go back for only one I'd choose the pork, if only because pork chops are so often badly done elsewhere; to have them cooked as perfectly as this (yes I am using that word) is a unique treat.


Of course, some of the hard work is done even before Blacklock spark up the coals - all meat is from exemplary Cornish butchers Warrens, an operation I've been entirely obsessed with ever since a steak at the Clove Club they supplied a few years back. These days, they're a little more widely spread (try the Adam & Eve pub in Homerton, or the brand new Newman Arms in Fitzrovia) but the product shows no sign of flagging.


So far so good, then, and if you like chops, clearly this is your place. As for the rest of the menu, it's best described as split into "grilled vegetables", so things like "charred courgettes and chicory" or "barbequed baby gems" which are in of themselves nice but tend to be overwhelm with carbon taken with everything else, and a couple of pleasant salads - "kale and parmesan" on my first visit and a pretty fennel and radish affair on my 2nd, both of which complimented the meats much better.


The only real problem I encountered was the bread. What I really wanted was something soft and absorbent to soak up the plateful of salty meat juices that had run out of the chops. "Charcoal-grilled flat bread", though, for some reason arrived completely soaked in oil, meaning it was no good either to wipe my plate clean with or as a companion to the rest of the food. And also tasted pretty horrid.


But these are minor things. If nothing else, Blacklock are willing to experiment - on my first visit starters were cute little discs of Peter's Yard crispbread topped with scrambled egg and anchovies. The next time, they were somewhat less successfully experimenting with grizly blobs of cold dripping topped with prosciutto... well, you have to admire their imagination.


Mistakes, though, are expected - in fact it would be more worrying if everything was perfect in the opening couple of months than if they weren't. What's more important than the detail is that somehow, it works - it feels like it belongs here, in this quirky dark basement, with its no-nonsense grilled meats and trendy-friendly-beardy staff. And despite having lost a brothel to gain it (as they themselves cheerfully point out), the opening of Blacklock feels like we've somehow gained more Soho than - as is becoming depressingly common - lost another chunk. So, well done them.

7/10

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Blacklock on Urbanspoon

Friday, 24 April 2015

La Régalade Saint Honoré, Paris


Delighted though I was to accept the invitation to a couple of days in Paris from the lovely people at the Office du Tourisme, there's always the worry that restaurants picked by a however well-meaning PR team wouldn't tally precisely with a tragically-obsessed restaurant geek (me) would pick for themselves (myself). I had never heard of La Regalade, or its Saint Honoré sister, and while a brief glance at the menu did admittedly look promising, I had convinced myself to see the trip mainly as a chance to travel business class on the Eurostar to stay in a lovely hotel near the Champs Elysees, and for mealtimes to be an unexpected bonus.


As it turns out, I needn't have worried; La Régalade ticked so many of my foodie buttons I could have chosen it myself, and in fact might do if I get the chance again. Rustic regional French food, cooked unpretentiously but with care, served speedily and for a relative bargain of €34, it reminded me very much of the casual-fine-dining Modern British spots we have in London, and indeed is responsible for a new wave of democratic (ie. affordable) dining trend across Paris. Admittedly, our menu on this visit was a PR-driven expansion of the usual offering (usually just 3 courses) but still should give you an idea of the kind of thing to expect.


One of Régalade's little quirks is that all customers receive as part of the set menu package a generous pot of house pickles (cauliflower, fennel, gherkins, things like that) and a vast terrine for the table to share. Both were incredibly good, the pickles with a good sour/sweet balance and decent crunch, and the terrine being one of those chunky country-style ones, seasoned well and packed with big chunks of pig. I wondered what would happen if you overindulged on these and the house bread and then decided against eating anything else; would they still charge you €34? Probably. This is Paris, after all.


Fortunately I managed to restrain myself on the charcuterie and tucked in eagerly to the first course, new season asparagus (from Provence) with a sauce made of aged Comté, morels and Jura wine. There is hardly anythin more deliciously, ideally French than this heavenly combination of ingredients, and I had made the effort to come to Paris for this one dish it wouldn't have been a wasted journey. The asparagus were huge, bright green affairs, charred from a grill and with an incredible flavour, and the frills and folds of the morels soaked up so much of the cheese & wine sauce each burst in the mouth like little parcels of rich mushroom soup. Brilliant stuff.


Roasted cod (from Brittany), with a delicate pea sauce. I don't know whether cod & peas was an ironic nod to their English guests, but these famous flavours are always complimentary and here, boosted by a nice crisp skin and bright-white flaky flesh, were better than ever. Much like the restaurants it reminds me of in London (Picture, the Dairy, etc) the style is stripped-back rather than basic, with just enough technique to make the ingredients shine without being inaccessible.


Veal from Correze came as a delicate pink fillet (I think) and another collection of slower-cooked meat wrapped up into a kind of faggot. Both were superb, the fillet cutting like butter, a reduced veal stock sauce coating it all with glossy richness, and a bright swoop of (from memory, sorry one of these days I honestly will start taking notes) celeriac mash providing some notes of the earth.

Desserts were, much like their London counterparts if I'm going to be honest (at least before the arrival of Kira Ghidoni at the Manor, Clapham), a little dissapointing. Some citrus fruits topped with a chocolate sorbet and some little cubes of citronella jelly, it was all perfectly decent but hardly up to the standard of what had come before.


And I'm assured La Régalade are "famous" for their soufflé, a little baffling judging by this clumsy thing pretending to have something to do with Grand Marnier but tasting like nothing more than verticle scrambled eggs. It looked the part - which I suppose is half the battle - but the lumpy, grainy texture did nothing for me.

But the final courses notwithstanding, La Regelade is still a very accomplished little place. As a reminder that France still has some of the finest ingredients in the world within its borders, and that they still know how to make the very best of them, €34 is a very decent price to pay. And for the swathe of "Bistronomy" restaurants it's inspired across town (read a bit more here, but basically La Régalade did for Paris what the gastropubs did for London) - Paris should be thoroughly grateful.

7/10

I was invited to La Regalade as part of a bloggers/press trip to Paris. We travelled by Eurostar and stayed at the 5 star Napoleon hotel, as if you couldn't find us insufferable enough. If all this talk of lovely food cooked well has made you wonder where's good a little closer to home, you can do far worse than downloading my app.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Delancey & Co, Fitzrovia


With my usual route to work disrupted due to a large chunk of central London spontaneously bursting into flames a few weeks back, I've had to get used to a slightly longer commute in the morning. So instead of taking the bus up Kingsway, surely one of the least inspiring roads in Britain, passing on the left Eat, Costa, Subway, Wasabi, Pret, Café Rouge, Caffe Nero, Starbucks, another Subway, another Eat and finally emerging at Holborn station bus stop wanting to emigrate to anywhere that doesn't think cheese and mayonnaise is an acceptable sandwich filling and doesn't need my first name to sell me a bottle of orange juice, I instead take a stroll through Covent Garden.

Covent Garden, it's true, still has its fair share of dreadful tourist-bait grothouses, but dotted amongst them are gems such as the Opera Tavern, Mishkin's, 10 Cases and the ever-wonderful Kanada-Ya. There's also exciting new indoor food market Startisans, which during the week showcases a variety of interesting stalls and on Friday becomes a mini beer (and mead) festival hosting some of London's newest producers. The point is, look even slightly off the beaten track in London and you will invariably find something interesting going on - all any of us often need is a little push in the right direction, be that a block-wide underground electrical fire or even (ahem) a handy app.

So yesterday morning I was winding my way up Catherine Street and noticed a little place calling itself a "Smart Burger and Vodka House". It seems their claimed USP is to be able to match burgers with vodka, and indeed the short menu of all-bases-covered sandwiches (a normal burger, a fish burger, a chicken burger, a vegan burger) each comes with a short list of suggested vodkas. Lemon, saffron and horseradish to go with a cod burger, for example, or cranberry, lemon or mint flavours to go with the vegan. "What an interesting idea," I thought, "just what we've all been waiting for."

Actually, I didn't think that at all. Of course I didn't. No, what I actually thought was, "the very last thing that's going to make me feel happy about having to eat a grilled courgette and pumpkin purée 'burger' is the thought of having to wash it down with a shot of Toilet Duck-infused petrol." So, shaking my head at the seemingly endless ways dollar-eyed restaurateurs will conjure up to squeeze the last drops of bloody juice out of London's burger obsession, I walked away. And instead of a rant about Smart© (their copyright symbol, not mine) Burgers and tarragon vodka, I'm here to tell you about Delancey & Co.


Ironically, there isn't too much to say about Delancey & Co because it's really just a little sandwich shop on Goodge St selling salt beef, turkey and smoked salmon sandwiches in a couple of different breads with a couple of different toppings for not very much money. In New York it would hardly register as anything worth noticing at all, but here in London we've still not quite got past the stage of a New York-style deli being a wonderful novelty, and for that reason Delancey & Co deserves a lot more attention.


A salt beef sandwich on marbled rye was a doorstop-sized beauty, filled with an over-generous amount of meat and loosened with Swiss cheese. The most important ingredient here is clearly the beef, and it was of superb quality, with ribbons of translucent fat woven through the pink flesh and cut into satisfying thick slices. The cheese had been melted on with a blowtorch, a nice time-saving feature, and American mustard added an extra layer of authenticity. My only minor niggle was that the top slice of bread was slightly stale on one side; a shame as the attention to detail shown else where couldn't be faulted. Let's hope these are starting-months niggles.


Friends I was with had similar ingredients inside a Challah roll, which by all accounts was even more successful, firstly not being stale (which helped) but also having a lovely soft brioche-y sweetness which was even more evocatively Old Americana. House pickles were also fantastic, coming in home-cured 'Sweet'n'Sour' and 'Salty' variations a cut above what you might expect from most other sandwich shops in town.


OK so, it is "just" a sandwich shop and yes, salt beef in rye is hardly a concept unknown in the Western world. But people doing this kind of thing this well are still very few and far between - I could point to the Brass Rail in Selfridge's (good but expensive), the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (good and cheap but on Brick Lane), Tongue & Brisket on Leather Lane (decent but inconsistent) but even doubling the number of purveyors of lovely fresh salt beef in rye bread would I'm sure still not meet demand. At least, it shouldn't do. Salt Beef sandwiches are a wonderful thing, and deserve to be obsessed over just as much as any burger. Having said that, if it ever gets to the stage someone opens a salt beef sandwich and vodka matching bar, I'm emigrating.

8/10

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Delancey & Co on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Black Swan at Oldstead, North Yorkshire


Whichever far-flung corner of the UK I happen to visit in pursuit of dinner, it seems I am cursed to immediately fall in love with the place and start planning an early retirement. First there was Cornwall, whose surreal beauty was backdrop to world-class restaurants such as Paul Ainsworth in Padstow, and where every inch of the county seemed to host some passionate producer or unique food story. Next came a trip to Devon and Somerset, which in the soft heat of late summer was like taking part in some glamorous Merchant Ivory production, only one with wifi and impeccably-kept cheese. And now the latest object of my obsession is the North York Moors.


It's a beautiful part of the country, but as you will have noticed following this blog over the years, there are many beautiful parts of the country. What took me by surprise in this particular spot (the very far South West of the North York Moors national park, near Coxwold and Byland Abbey) was just how alive and verdant it all seemed, even in very early spring. There was so much chattering and chirping wildlife following us around it was like rolling through a safari park - pheasants, partridges, hares, rabbits and stoats ducked around our feet (and, occasionally more worrying, the wheels of our car) while wood pigeons, herons and colourful finches played overhead. All of which conspired to make me very happy, but also very hungry - how many species would make their way onto that evening's menu? Plenty, I hoped.


Dinner began with a kale martini. This stood every chance of being pretty revolting, but was actually incredibly successful, just the right side of sweet and savoury with a flavour that was best described as "vegetal" than overly cabbagey. An incredible colour too; it looked and tasted like distilled Yorkshire spring.


First of the snacks, served in the cozy downstairs bar, was a cracker somehow made out of dried artichoke, topped with something creamy possibly also involving artichokes and then a little neat square of vinegary jelly. It's the kind of thing that's impossible not to love, and not just because I'd been looking forward to dinner so much I could have probably quite happily eaten a coaster.


Bright pink cubes of moist ox tongue, rested on blobs of mustard cream and delicate pressed linseed crackers. Sort of like a deconstructed salt beef sandwich. Salty and fatty and soft and crunchy and colourful.


This cute little fellow was a ball of smoked eel and pork, bread-crumbed and deep-fried like arancini, and served on a very interesting stone pedestal. While I remember in fact, all of the stunning Black Swan crockery is handmade just for the restaurant by a potter from York called Jane Schaffer, a lovely - and local - touch.


In more attractive handmade stoneware came duck broth, a gorgeously rich and satisfying thing, perhaps a tad overseasoned but still hugely enjoyable. That next to it is a sort of duck samosa with some shoots of new-growth chard straight out of the restaurant's kitchen garden.


Resettled upstairs in the main dining room - a low-ceilinged, ancient old space with stone-flagged floors and antique furniture; basically everything you want from a country pub restaurant - the mains began to arrive. First was a kind of spelt risotto, flavoured with lovage and trompette mushrooms, and topped with a couple of perfectly-poached quail's eggs. More of that great deep seasonal green colour as well, the kind you only get from the very healthiest and freshest vegetables. If you were desperate to pick fault you could possibly argue it was, like the duck broth, a bit salty, but not so much that it was a problem. Oh and the house bread, little sourdough buns, were great, and came with an astonishing velvetty goat's curd.


This vast scallop was apparently still happily sat at the bottom of the Scottish ocean in the early hours of that very morning. Their fish people rush them down to order in a van every day, and it really shows - I'd go so far as to say it's the best scallop I've ever had in my life. It was perfectly cooked of course, slightly transluscent inside and with a delicate golden crust, but this wasn't just a case of good technique; this was simply a stunning bit of seafood. With it was some bits of chopped squid and samphire and a clever big clear cracker thing apparently made out of samphire somehow, but really this was all about that scallop.


Local (of course) lamb, with some nasturtium leaves from the garden, and some cute little cylinders of browned white radish. The meat, it almost goes without saying, was treated faultlessly, and a light mint yoghurt sauce it rested on made the pink meat feel even more intensely gamey. As well as all that though, this dish was paired with a Portuguese red which was so memorable - all spicy and glossy and comforting - I'm going to type out exactly what it says on my printed menu here so you can search it out yourself - "Meandro do Vale Meao, Quinta do Vale Mea 2010".


The vegetarian main course option is worth a mention too - some locally-foraged wild mushrooms including Hen of the Woods, which tastes so like chicken I wonder if you'd ever miss the real thing if you were lucky enough to have access to such things on a regular basis.


"Lolipops" the next course was called, for obvious reasons. The genius in this course was how the flavours gradually transitioned from savoury (cep mushroom and white chocolate) on the right, via fennel root and elderberry in the middle to sweet (rosemary and apple on the left), bridging the gap between main courses and dessert. This is a kitchen in supreme command of the experience it is giving to diners.


The dessert itself, a geometrically-exact cylinder of lemon and sheep's milk ice cream topped with pine sorbet, was a mini work of art and a revelatory combination of flavours at once. And if that wasn't enough, the Black Swan went all Fat Duck on us, with a pine-scented cloud of CO2 being spectacularly unleashed from a contraption in the middle of the table. Matched with the food was a Douglas Fir Sour, almost more impressive than the dessert itself, rejuvenating and soothing with its cream/sour balance.


Petits fours (petit fours? petits four? Excuse my French) rounded things off nicely - those chocolate blocks are salted caramel truffles.


The Black Swan is, as I hope I've made pretty clear, a near-faultless restaurant that could hold its head high in any company, with service and style that would turn heads no matter where it set up shop. But a fundamental part of its success is that, just like Simon Rogan's l'Enclume in Cumbria, or Stephen Harris' Sportsman in Kent, instead of looking abroad, making the most of what they can get their hands of and ending up with that bland foie-gras-and-beef-fillet international geographically-vague type of fine dining, the menu is designed (odd element of seafood aside) precisely around what this tiny corner of the North York Moors is best at, and they've set themselves the task of getting better and better at serving that. And so what you end up with is not only a bloody good dinner but something unmistakeably of Yorkshire, that could literally exist nowhere else in the world.

It was as we traipsed through a nearby wood earlier that afternoon to work up an appetite, passing through narrow green lanes heady with wild garlic and being bleated at by new-born lambs in rolling blustery fields, that I began to wonder whether this isn't just the future of high-end gastronomy but all food; not in some hippy food-miles save-the-planet way but just for the straightforward delight in knowing exactly why your dinner exists and the sheer smug pleasure in knowing you're making the most of it. And after a meal at the Black Swan that evening, I was almost convinced - in this most remote part of England, where mobile phones are useless and taxis cost £40/mile, I've never felt the distance between production and consumption be so tantalisingly - and wonderfully - short.

9/10

In the hopefully not-too-distant future I may be able to share with you a Where to Eat Yorkshire app. Meantime, if you're in London, why not use Where to Eat London to pick a dinner spot? Guaranteed only the very best restaurants in London.

The Black Swan, Oldstead on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Bao, Soho


A reliable feature of the very best restaurants is when you first glance at the menu and want to order every single last thing. Perhaps only at Lockhart, in recent memory, have I seen a menu so comprehensively attractive as that at Bao, whose expertly-pitched offerings of Taiwanese appetisers and steamed buns, paired with a short list of interesting beers, ciders and sake, contains absolutely no filler, no token vegetarian options or timid crowdpleasing carbohydrates. It is a love letter to food, or perhaps more specifically a love letter to foodies - pig blood cake, trotter nuggets, eryngii mushroom with century egg, guinea fowl Chi Shiang rice; bold and brilliant, flattering its audience with unusual ingredients and daring you to try something new.


Unlike the Lockhart, though, where to satisfy your desire to try the whole menu you'd need a party of at least 8, at Bao the dishes are so keenly priced and the portion sizes so sensible that just two people could almost work their way through the whole lot. I didn't quite - sadly - manage this last night but it's only a matter of time before I do, because believe me, this isn't the kind of place you visit just once.


Ordering is done via putting numbers next to a little printout of the menu, "like in Argos" as my friend pointed out. This means that if you're in a rush and want to order everything at once you can, or if you want to split up your meal into stages you can just come back and order more later. It's a good system. We started with eryngii mushroom with century egg, wich punched way above its weight with a rich umami hit of soy and mushroom, the chunks of jellied egg filling out the flavour and texture. This remained one of our favourite dishes of the night, and not just because (well, at least not only because) we were so ravenously hungry when it arrived.


Next, a huge meaty scallop in yellow bean garlic sauce. Perfectly cooked with a lovely golden crust yet just-so inside, it was clearly a very high quality bit of seafood, treated very well. But the yellow bean sauce was a revelation - distantly familiar from Chinese takeaways past, yet luxurious and refined. It had a marvellous smoky, silky texture and really enhanced the seafood.


Not for Bao anything as humdrum as fried potato. Sweet potato chips were best described as tempura, with a light white batter on each neat little stick of vegetable, and dressed with a soft, fruity 'plum pickle salt'.


You'd expect the buns themselves, which after all made Bao their enviable name on the street food scene, to be worth the trip alone. My own "classic" was every bit as good as I remember from Kerb at the Bussey building in Peckham, and all the better in fact for not having to eat them standing up with a on open bottle of beer in my shirt pocket.


And I didn't get to try the vegetarian daikon option but from what I can gather, that was pretty bloody impressive too. In fact I'm told that the daikon bun is their best seller so far. I'll just have to go back and see what the fuss is about.


40-day aged rump cap from Warrens butchers in Cornwall (the very best butchers in the country, in case you hadn't heard of them) was never likely to disappoint. But dressed in a special aged white soy sauce imported specially from Taiwan, it was lifted onto another level, the fat from the beef combining with soy to produce a particularly astonishing flavour. Describing exactly why the effect was so impressive may be beyond me, but it was as if the soy made the beef more beefy, highlighting yet refining all of the funky notes from the meat.


Aubergine, served with wonton had a great spicy flavour but there's something about the texture of aubergine that I find a bit disorienting. Still, the wontons were fun and it was at least something I'd not had before.


Desserts were no kind of afterthought. Peanut milk was a refreshing shot of, well, peanutty milk, a bit like the bottom of a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes but absolutely non the worse for that.


And Fried Horlicks ice cream bao? Gorgeous smooth, malty ice cream inside what if I didn't know better I would assume to be a kind of doughnut/brioche hybrid but was - I'm told - some kind of fried version of the normal steamed bao buns. Very clever stuff, either way - another highlight amongst highlights.

We had two beers each, three authentically-inoffensive Taiwan beers and one from Austria just to see what the difference was. Objectively the Austrian beer was better, but weirdly the more bland Taiwan style worked better with the food. I'm sure that was entirely deliberate.


Service was never less than brilliant but there did seem to be more than enough staff for the tiny room. Our seat at the bar gave us the opportunity to engage with the guy serving up sake in little metal teapots and made it incredibly easy to set our own pace through the menu. Maybe if you were sat on a bench near the kitchen or next to the loos you wouldn't think the room was quite so comfortable, but for £30 a head for such creative and exciting food that is largely unique in the capital, I'd put up with far worse.


The only niggling worry is that Bao is already looking like it may be a victim of its own success. Last night, on opening night no less, the queue stretched down the street. So space at this bright and bold little spot on Lexington Street may always be as rare as guinea fowl teeth. But surely - surely you're used to this kind of thing by now. Get there early, and get there soon. Bao is an absolute cracker.

9/10

Beaten by the queues at Bao and want to know where else is good? Where to Eat London 2015, my guide to only the very best restaurants London has to offer, is available on the App Store right now for £2.99. Photos by Hannah.