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Cheese and Biscuits

Restaurant reviews in London and beyond

Last Build Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2018 08:37:51 +0000


Nuala, Old Street

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 15:00:00 +0000

It's a sign of just how old I and my peer group in London are getting that meals in fancy new restaurants often begin with a period of reminiscing about the previous use - or uses - of the building we happen to find ourselves in. I remember this particular spot on City Road, when I worked in the area in around 2008, being home to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, but my dining companion last night's knowledge of the area stretches back even further, to when it was apparently a grim, bare-bones nightclub with blacked-out windows and murky reputation. That was when you'd occasionally catch Noel Fielding in the Dragon Bar just over the road, and a pint cost £4. Yes, that far back. Anyway, in the now-almost-unrecognisable Silicon Roundabout, up pops Nuala, as flashy and "designed" as befits the area but with a welcome as warm and kind as an Irish mammy. Yes, Nuala takes a certain inspiration from the Emerald Isle as head chef Niall Davidson (formerly of, well, lots of places but most recently Chiltern Firehouse) hails from there, but the menu is far from traditional and has rather more Dalston than Dalkey about it. The friendliness and charm of the front of house, though, seems very Irish. From "Snacks" (you'll know how the menu is organised if you've eaten at another cutting-edge British-Irish restaurant, the Dairy, in the last few years) we tried cod's roe crackers, superb smooth, salty tarama on top of delicate corn crisps, and neat discs of home made soda bread, sweet and soft, topped with shavings of foie gras and enchanting ribbons of preserved clementine. "Crab salad in chilled cucumber broth" performed the intricate task of balancing white and brown crab meat utterly perfectly - just enough brown to have that earthy umami kick, sweetened with just the right amount of white - and the "broth" - in fact more like a gel - had a clean, defined cucumber taste. It was the kind of crab dish you always hope to find on a menu like this, but it's by no means a given that every kitchen can pull it off. Nuala managed it though. Then the best sweetbreads I can remember eating in a long time. Huge, beautiful things, glazed with a superb meaty jus and without a hint of the mealiness that can affect lesser examples, they would have been astonishingly successful even without the "cauliflower rarebit", rich and smokey from the open grill, which accompanied them. Much like the crab dish, you hope when you see something like this on a menu it will live up to the promise, but only very rarely is it realised quite so brilliantly. Rabbit is another tricky meat to get right - cooked well, it can be lean and gamey without being dry, but I've lost count of the number of times I've been presented with vaguely rabbity lumps of cotton wool, in otherwise even quite accomplished restaurants. Needless to say, at Nuala they know what they're doing with a bit of bunny, and a lovely grilled leg was presented alongside a couple of medallions of stuffed loin, all of it beautifully moist. Chunks of salt-baked celeriac sat in a subtle cream sauce studded with samphire, and added up to a very rewarding plate of food indeed. Even superficially more straightforward dishes had plenty to recommend them. True, rump is often a chewier cut of cow, ordered often with the tacit understanding that whatever you lose in texture you'll gain in taste. And yes, although it took a bit of chewing, the taste from this beautiful bit of steak, Torloisk Highland cattle cooked to medium-rare over the coals and funky with a good deal of dry-aging, was well worth the effort and then some. This producer is a new one to me, but I will certainly be looking out for it on menus in the future. It's at this point in lesser restaurants, whether the savoury courses had been mediocre or even quite good, that, sated and slowing, we'd pay up and leave. However we were having such a blast at Nuala that not only did we not dash home after mains but, having come to the conclusion that this kitchen could basically do no wrong, we decided to order all the desserts. So, a char-grilled pineapple, [...]

Mrs Le's Banh Mi and Grill, Battersea

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 11:53:00 +0000

In 2005 I moved to Battersea and, for a while, there was nowhere decent nearby to eat. Actually, that's not strictly true - the Greyhound on Battersea High St had a decent stab at being a sort of Antipodean gastropub for a while, though they'd perhaps misjudged the area's level of gentrification at the time as I distinctly remember being pelted with gravel by a gang of feral youths as I attempted to dine al fresco. Sadly the Greyhound and, less sadly, the youths, moved on. A little later, the Fox and Hounds on Latchmere Road became our go-to local, and for a while was notable as the only pub in the area that refused to serve a burger and/or chips. Indeed, it still serves a mainly Italian selection of dishes (burrata, risotto, pasta) although sadly (again...) the standard of food dipped quite heavily when a certain chef quit around 2008 and is now really only worth visiting for the lovely beer garden out back. They now do a burger. With chips. You can imagine my delight, then, when Mien Tay opened in 2009. on Lavender Hill. In stark contrast to the collection of half-assed pizza/kebab joints, fish & chip shops and bland curry houses that were their neighbours on this unlovely stretch of road, Mien Tay was a Proper Vietnamese Restaurant, serving fresh summer rolls, honey-glazed quail dipped in lime and salt and sizzling plates of spiced lamb and fried onions, in a cosy (if not always comfortable - blimey they love to keep those radiators on full blast) family-run space. It was - and crucially still is - a great little restaurant, and I go all the time. Mien Tay could, I'm sure, have used their acquisition of one of the aforementioned half-assed fish & chip shops next door (it was called Salisbury's, if you care, which you shouldn't) as a kind of Mien Tay spillover, as the mothership quite understandably gets so slammed on weekday evenings. Instead, the concept is something genuinely new to London - a fiercely authentic (or so I'm led to believe) replica of the kind of grill restaurant you'd find in South West Vietnam, complete with laminated menus full of offal, seafood and grilled meats, and enough unusual eye-catching specialities to make any blogger's head spin. As a blogger, then, and therefore someone with a compulsive habit of ordering the most unusual items on any given menu whether I think I'll like it or not, we started with chicken gizzards. These were, as chicken gizzards always are, quite alarmingly crunchy and without a great deal of flavour, although the fruit/lime dip they came with was lovely and it was all clearly very well done, at least as much as gizzards can be. I'm not going to complain about ordering chicken gizzards and then being given chicken gizzards, because that would be deeply unfair. If you love chicken gizzards, these are the chicken gizzards for you. But what came next was much more to our tastes. Bivalves and cheese is a pairing that has a certain precedent in Western cooking - oysters "Rockefeller"[see edit] is a steakhouse starter staple - but here, treated to a cleverly balanced sauce and grilled just to the point where they're hot but the oysters themselves are plump and full of briney flavour, the match makes even more perfect sense. Apparently these delicacies are sold roadside in the region of Vietnam called (what else) Mien Tay, and their successful reproduction in London relies on only the largest oysters being available from Billingsgate. It's dishes like this, something (as far as I know) genuinely new on our shores that must have taken a certain amount of bravery to add to a menu in SW11 in 2018, that make you thank the stars that at least not everyone is running shy from innovation. A gamble for them, and us, that paid off wonderfully. Lamb chops were somewhat more straightforward but hardly less enjoyable. Pink inside and touched with a charcoal char, they were listed with the suggestion "try with our sticky rice cakes" and so having ordered said rice cakes separately we were surprised to find the chops came with them anyway. So we ended up with qu[...]

Restaurant of the Year 2017 - The Holborn Dining Room

Thu, 14 Dec 2017 11:37:00 +0000

Well, we survived. This time in 2016 I was typing with trembling fingers in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, unsure of what it meant for the health of the UK's restaurant industry and the continued survival of the human species generally. I still don't know exactly how things will play out (if you do, for the love of God let someone in authority know), but though I still do occasionally wake up screaming at night, cutting the TV news out of my morning routine and blocking anyone with a flag next to their name on Twitter has helped with the panic attacks. I can thoroughly recommend doing both. And to be fair, so far - so far - life appears to continue somewhat as normal. From the pace, and quality, of new restaurants appearing over the last twelve months you wouldn't know Armageddon in any form looms in the next couple of years, and whether this is simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic or a genuine belief amongst restaurateurs that things will indeed be OK In The End, well, the effect is the same - lots of genuinely brilliant places to eat, in London and all up and down the country. So, without further ado... Best Newcomer (London) - XuA huge amount of competition for Best Newcomer this year - again - so I've decided to split the category into inside and outside the M25. Runner-up mentions must go to Jamavar, a swanky restaurant in Mayfair which continues to push the possibilities of high-end Indian cuisine and serves food of such exquisite flavour and precision that it almost makes you forget the prices you're paying for it. Also, just nipping in at the end of 2017 is Parsons, which manages to be some kind of platonic ideal of the seafood restaurant. Great ingredients, treated well, served at a decent mark-up. Nothing much not to love. But overall, the best new restaurant needs not to merely be good, but groundbreaking. Xu serves the kind of food I'd not seen before in London - high-end Taiwanese - and is as good as ambassador for it as you can possibly imagine. Flavours are bold, but balanced, and full of interesting twists and turns; presentations are as careful and geometric as architecture, colourful and clever; and you'll enjoy it all in a cosy, clubby space that makes the most of its small Chinatown footprint. I'm baffled that not everyone loves the place; maybe they just don't deserve to be happy. Best Newcomer (outside London) - Where The Light Gets InIf someone had told me when I was growing up in North Merseyside/West Lancashire - a part of the country that could charitably be described as "beige" - that there would one day exist there a Michelin-starred fine dining modern British restaurant in the l'Enclume vein, set in acres of kitchen gardens and with its own cheese and charcuterie rooms, I'd have assumed you were as detatched from reality and sense as the customers I regularly served at the Ormskirk Abbey National during my teens. But there Moor Hall is anyway, and I somewhat suspect despite its location rather than because of it, it's utterly wonderful. But wonderful though Moor Hall is, there's a bright little spot in Stockport that somehow managed to upstage even that temple of gastronomic achievement. Where The Light Gets In is everything that's good, and decent, and rewarding about eating out in this country, all in one beautiful package. The food served is exciting and technically proficient without being difficult; they wear their environmental waste-free credentials on their sleeves without being preachy or - crucially - without the product suffering at all, in fact if anything it seems to make more sense that certain ingredients crop up in various different forms throughout the menu. But mainly it's just impossible to sit down for dinner here and not have the time of your life. Best Restaurant 2017 - The Holborn Dining RoomsFirst, some runners up. I split the newcomers category into London/Outside London mainly because I wanted the excuse to list more places, but in all honesty there's no point any longer in pretending that Not Lo[...]

The Lady Mildmay, Newington Green

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 13:18:00 +0000

Leaping around from one astonishingly brilliant new restaurant to the next, as I'm lucky enough to do as a food blogger, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that actually, London isn't just stuffed to the brim with great restaurants at every conceivable price point. True, we've made huge leaps forward in the quality, number and variety of places to eat in the ten-and-a-bit years I've been writing this blog, but the continued existence (and, *shudder*, growth) of places like Frankie & Benny's or JRC Global Buffet on our nation's high streets is just something that isn't going to change any time soon. And maybe it doesn't have to. Yes, the residents of Madrid or San Sebastian can point to the fact that you can just duck into the nearest tapas joint and be pretty certain of a decent feed, but what about if you want a pho, or a hot pot, or an egg hopper? I used to get annoyed about the depressing success of awful lowest-common-denominator chain restaurants but perhaps they're nothing more than the price we have to pay for the incredible variety and innovation going on elsewhere. Also, I can't help noticing that even aside from the usual places that get all the attention, there has been a noticeable improvement in the "average" (I don't mean that to sound disparaging but I suppose it is a bit) local restaurant or pub. Time was, a Sunday roast from anywhere that wasn't a notable gastropub or steakhouse would be a fairly uninspiring combination of boiled veg, packet gravy and overcooked beef, but a more discerning population means everyone's local has to up their Sunday game. So to the Lady Mildmay in Newington Green, chosen for a friend's birthday lunch and - it's fair to say - not really on the radar of insufferable London food scenesters like me. And OK, it's not the Drapers, it's not Quality Chop, it's not even Blacklock who do an insanely great Sunday roast for £20 and has people falling over themselves for a table. But what it is is a very decent, generously portioned lunch for not a huge amount of money, in a lovely old Victorian pub in a very pretty part of London and I enjoyed it rather a lot. Best of the roasts we tried was beef rump cap, pink and tender and served with a nice rich gravy. The Yorkshire pud had (I think) been made a little while in the past, and was doing a passable impression of a pud-shaped water biscuit, but it still wasn't horrible. Also say what you like about kale, but those frilly leaves really carry the gravy, and I'd much rather they were on the plate than not. Cod and mash with leeks and parsley was so old school it could have come from a different century, but was actually cooked very well, with a nice crisp skin and good, defined, bright white flakes of fish. The butter content of the mash could have done with learning something from the French, but this was a minor point. Also, look at the amount of it - plenty for your £15. Lamb was probably the most disappointing of the roasts, but even that wasn't too bad. I don't like the "pulled" shoulder presentation that seems to have gone around the city lately, and the gravy seemed thinner and less full of flavour than the beef's - the lamb itself was lovely and tender though. There was also chicken (or rather stuffed poussin), which I didn't try, but which seemed to go down well with those that ordered it. Oh, and a really decent cheese course, and some desserts which I completely forgot to take photos of, probably because we were chain-drinking bottles of red and more interested in enjoying ourselves than recording the moment. Which is what Sundays should be about really - holing up in a handsome Victorian pub in North London while the snow falls outside, getting slowly but surely pissed on Languedoc and delaying the journey home until the Uber surge ends. Professional (ha!) detachment requires I mark our meal based on the objective quality of the meal, and so I will. But as afternoons go, I doubt I've had more fun in months, and I'm almost certain to be back. A[...]

Parsons, Covent Garden

Thu, 07 Dec 2017 16:14:00 +0000

It's about this time of year that I start getting emails from magazines and websites asking for my food predictions for 2018. I have, to this date, never had a single one of my predictions come true, but that doesn't seem to stop people asking; perhaps it's more about testing my imagination than my soothsaying abilities. Anyway, this year, to avoid the inevitable embarassment of being completely and utterly wrong yet again, I decided to play it safer. With Brexit looming terrifyingly in the distance and London's hospitality industry already in collective terror over whether they'll even have the staff to open next week never mind once half their payroll gets deported, I thought investors would start looking to surer returns on their money, and instead of bankrolling the latest streetfood sensation (be it Korean-Burmese-Eskimo fusion paella or something really stupid) are more likely to want to see 2nd branches of existing successful ventures. We've already seen the start of this in the city, where the brand-new and ludicrously flashy Bloomberg Arcade contains branches of Caravan, Vinoteca, Bleecker burger, Koya, Homeslice and A Wong; all excellent choices, certainly, but safe choices, proven money-spinners that bring their own audience. The owners of 10 Cases on Endell Street could have done exactly that with their second restaurant. 10 Cases is, by anyone's standards, a lovely little place, serving rustic French food for not much money alongside a really interesting selection of wines. Another 10 Cases (in fact, "Another 10 Cases" would have been quite a good name) would, I'm sure, have been just as popular, and just as successful. Instead, just over the road, they've opened Parsons, a seafood restaurant. A very good seafood restaurant. In fact, probably the best seafood restaurant I've had the pleasure of visiting for a very long time, somewhere that approaches the business of serving fish and shellfish alongside an intelligent wine list with such confidence and clarity you wonder why on earth it's taken until 2017 for someone to come up with it. As with so many great ideas, the premise is shockingly simple - get hold of whatever fish and shellfish is best on the day, serve it simply and without fuss, and for a reasonable markup. This means that expensive stuff like langoustine and lobster is, well, expensive, but that you can also order cheaper fish for about the price of a pint of beer. And, crucially, whether the raw ingredients are premium or not, they're all treated incredibly well. Take these sardines, £5.50 for the two, simply seasoned and grilled and served with a slice of lemon. The flesh pulled away from the bones beautifully, and had a fantastic meaty, umami-rich flavour. The best grilled sardines take me right back to childhood holidays in Spain, and to Calella de Palafrugell where we'd eat them at whichever beachfront restaurant had a free table. These did exactly that - and for about the same price (in fact probably less). Langoustine were impeccably done - the warm tail flesh pulling out of the shell in one single bright-white piece, the claw meat soft and impossibly sweet. They came dressed in a yuzu-chilli dressing of some kind which livened the meat without overwhelming it - a nice, intelligent cheffy touch. I had to order the lobster mash because, well, come on, you have to order something called "lobster mash" at least once in your life, even if just to say you've tried lobster mash. It was, in all honesty, not quite the divine experience I'd built myself up to expect but was very good nontheless, containing vast chunks of bouncy-fresh lobster and silky-smooth potato. Perhaps it just needed a bit more salt, or a greater amount of butter in the mash, but the bowl was still clean when I'd finished. I appreciate that three dishes isn't a whole lot of evidence to hang an entire restaurant review, but experience tells me that if a place can cook this well once, they can cook it well many more [...]

Pascere, Brighton

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 14:20:00 +0000

As you may have noticed, I'm a hopeless restaurant spod, and in common with many other hopeless restaurant spods my attitude towards any part of the world is inextricably linked with my experience of eating there. I love Bristol, for example, where Bell's Diner and the Lido and of course the annual Grillstock barbeque competition means memories of that beautiful city are always shining gold. I took a while to warm to Manchester (I am from Liverpool after all) but thanks to the French and Manchester House I look forward to trips there now as much as anywhere. Similarly Cornwall, and Yorkshire, and Lancashire, and anywhere that has fed me well - that's more or less all it takes to win me over. I mean, access by train helps but isn't essential. Brighton, then, after a desperately disappointing meal at the Salt Room, had a lot of work to do. Just as I (perhaps unrealistically) idealise anywhere I've had a great meal, I'm also prone to dismiss anywhere that hasn't impressed, and I was ready to file the seaside town alongside Liverpool (trip to Wreckfish pending) and Winchester in the "must do better" pile. Fortunately, there is as good reason to jump on the train down south (or in the case of this last weekend, the train then a bloody bus replacement service from Hayward's Heath), and it's a lovely friendly little bistro in the Lanes called Pascere. Small but perfectly formed, Pascere has about 20 seats downstairs and a handful more upstairs where there's an attractive "kitchen table" bar area. As far as I'm concerned, the smaller the restaurant the better - if I barely have to glance up to attract the attention of a member of staff, this is all to the good - and it's to Pascere's credit that tables are still nicely spaced out and the place feels airy and bright. The menu is short, full of lots of attractive, exciting things that normal people want to eat, and remarkably good value considering the quality - and generosity - of cooking on display. Croquettes feature in a couple of guises, firstly these containing chicken, with a clever chicken 'powder' scattered over the top and a chicken skin mayonnaise beneath. Chicken three-ways, all of them good. Next stone bass croquettes, strikingly darkened with squid ink with a similarly Vantablack mayo, had a perfect fish-potato mix (as in around 50/50) and also came with a dairy-free tartare of chopped sweet pickles and capers. They were also very nice, although this being 2017 they must suffer the reality of existing in a world where José Pizarro's chicken, and fish, croquettas are also available to buy. Still, at £6.50 for three you could hardly complain too much. Also from the 'snacks' menu were these beautiful things - Portland crab tarts, containing a huge mound of sweet white crab meat and topped with a kind of bisque-y hollandaise. Another intelligent balance of texture, ingredient and seasoning. And we hadn't even got to the starters yet. Baby squid suffered a little from overseasoning but was still an impressive bit of work, with a gentle parsley cream binding some noodly thin mushrooms, and topped with a very Rogan-esque (I'm sure they won't mind me saying) squid ink cracker. Underneath it all was a perfect bright green square of something else that tasted vaguely vegetal, but we couldn't work out exactly what it was. Looked nice, though. Braised ox-cheek next, rolled up inside breadcrumbs, with pickled red cabbage. I think we'd liked to have seen a bit more of the advertised black pudding purée and, after two courses of croquettes, a little less breadcrumb, but this was probably just as much our fault as theirs. The little cubes of ox tongue were lovely, too - bouncy and salty with bags of flavour. Both mains were more than up to the task. Roast duck, pink and juicy, came with a (-nother) breadcrumbed nugget of richly-flavoured leg meat and various bits of winter veg dressed in a nice dark jus. I'm not a fan of parsnip, so I'll recu[...]

Xu, Chinatown

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 14:46:00 +0000

Trishna, Gymkhana, Hoppers, Bubbledogs, Kitchen Table, Lyle's, Bao. If at least one of those restaurants isn't in your top 5 in London then you almost certainly haven't eaten at them yet, and in fact I'd go further - there will be a number of committed foodies in the capital whose top five spots are all taken by members of the above list. The JKS group is known not just for the astonishing quality of the places they manage but for the sheer variety, running from smart Indian to Sri Lankan via seasonal fine dining and Taiwanese street food. Everything they turn their hand to is in some way notable, unique and brilliant. They are, in short, some of the finest restaurateurs the city has ever known. The closest contemporary comparison is Alan Yau, who also instinctively "got" what people wanted from a restaurant and had pockets deep enough to make his visions a reality, but there was always a sense, particularly at lower-end concepts like Busaba Eathai but also at flagship Hakkasan and certainly at latest Soho "Chinese gastropub" Duck and Rice that atmosphere and attitude came first, and food (an often distant) second. Not so with JKS, and certainly not at Xu, where a gloriously opulent interior, all dark carved woods and plush, intimate booths, is merely the perfect setting for some of the most exciting and inventive Chinese/Taiwanese food to ever hit the capital. I'm intensely aware I'm on very shaky ground talking details, as my knowledge of high-end Taiwanese cuisine is only slightly more developed than my understanding of the rules of American Football, but I know good food when I taste it and this "tomato and smoked eel" was great, the soft cubes of fish sharpened by a commendably punchy tomato/chilli sauce, topped with crisp daikon for extra crunch. Girolles vermicelli was no less interesting for being the vegetarian option, containing a well-seasoned mound of fresh mushies and nice defined glass noodles. I think there were squares of something else in there too - perhaps egg, although don't quote me on that. Look, I did warn you I wouldn't do very well with the descriptions. The beef in "Numbing beef tendon" was sliced into neat flat circles, covered in Sichuan peppercorn-spiked chilli oil, and topped with various herbs and finely chopped spring onions. At its heart this was a smartened-up version of the "sliced beef in chilli oil" you may have enjoyed in your favourite Sichuan restaurant, only more subtle, more attractive and that much more rewarding. Between the starters and mains we snuck in a snack from the main menu, "Xian Bing", pastry puffs containing robustly-flavoured pucks of aged pork and accompanied by a saucer of quite lovely vinegar. One of the highlights of a meal at Bao in the early days was a dressing of aged white soy sauce that came with the beef rump cap, and it's clear their attention to detail to sauces has been carried over to Xu. In fact, the sense of every element of every dish having been lovingly crafted and tested to perfection will be familiar to anyone who's ever eaten at Bao. The only main that didn't completely knock us over was the seabass, so let's start with that. Though cooked perfectly, and certainly a generous portion, there was something surprisingly one-note and - dare I say it - boring about the dressing, both the inoffensive coriander (presumably) side and the sledgehammer punch of the chilli side, most of which we ended up scraping off. Still, as I say, the fish was good, and was all eaten. Much better was Mapo Tofu, set in a thick, silky layer and dressed with a rich concoction of herbs, greens and spices. Though onstensibly the "vegetarian option", there was absolutely no sense that this dish compromised anything of the punch and power of the meaty dishes; in fact it made a case for being the best dish overall. Well, perhaps apart from the beef. Oh lordy, the beef. I have to admit to a twinge of disappointme[...]

Darbaar, Liverpool Street

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 11:13:00 +0000

There is, apparently, a long history of game cookery in India. I was told this at dinner at Gymkhana a few years back and was quite surprised at the time, but when you think about it I suppose it makes sense. Rich English colonialists swanning about as if they owned the place (well, they kind of did) needed something to fill the long hours between drinking tea and oppressing the natives, and introduced grouse and pheasant to shoot. Eventually these new flavours were incorporated into local cooking traditions and we end up with things like "grouse pepper fry" and "wild muntjac biryani". Or so the story goes. To be honest, there's very little about this kind of thing on Google, but even if the history of British game in India is at least somewhat fancified or embellished, the fact is powerful flavours like grouse and pigeon do stand up incredibly well to Indian spicing, and a game menu at an Indian restaurant, as proven without a doubt by Gymkhana, makes perfect sense. And so to Darbaar, fancy restaurant in the City of London where I enthusiastically accepted an invite to see their take on the subject. And fancy is the word, too - it's a large, impressive space, romantically-lit and staffed by more than enough capable staff, with large open kitchens where you can see almost everything that goes on in the preparation of your dinner. The first bits to arrive were mini poppadums - a huge, generous amount in a large basket (other posh Indians take note; I shouldn't have to pester a member of staff to bring me 6 at a time), with some decent chutneys. No, they weren't quite as brilliant as the versions at Trishna or Jamavar - I could have done with at least one nice, hot mixed pickle - but still did the job. First course proper was this - a skewer of "masala game fritters", breadcrumbed spheres of minced meat, on a beetroot chutney. They were lovely things indeed, the delicate, crisp crust giving way to dense grouse, pigeon and partridge offal, robustly spiced and full of flavour. Next, "Hunter-style partridge with glazed pear" involved a deftly-grilled breast of partridge, coated in a good thick layer of wonderfully complex tandoori spices, with a kind of battered/confit effect done on the leg and finished with a slice of sweet poached pear. Another thoroughly satisfying dish, with a masterful command of spicing and texture, it made the most of this interesting game bird without drowning it in seasoning. Between this and the main course arrived this mango sorbet. Nice - very nice in fact - but a slightly odd palate cleanser between two savoury dishes. I'd have preferred it as a pre-dessert, I think, but perhaps they know what they're doing as I was more than ready for some more protein after I'd knocked it back. I can't remember when I've had a more rewarding venison dish in recent years than this "Rajasthani-spiced" version, beautifully tender and touched with just enough soola (fennel, cumin, coriander, cardamon, peppercorns, onion, garlic and ghee according to Google) spices to bring out the flavour of the wild animal. And if that wasn't enough, it arrived on a bed of charred green veg soaked in ghee and who knows what else, that were worth the price of admission alone. With the main courses, a little matter of a bowl of bewilderingly lovely black daal, right up there with the best I've found in town, and some nice bubbly naans to soak it all up. Even a mediocre black daal can keep my attention; the best examples, such as those made at Trishna, and Gymkhana, and Jamavar, and this one at Darbaar, are seared into my memories forever. Dense, buttery, chocolatey, silky, there are hardly enough adjectives in the world to adequately convey the character of a truly exceptional black daal; they are the absolute pinnacle of Indian cooking and I love them with a passion. But not just because of the black daal, although that would have been mor[...]

Ynyshir, Powys

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 09:52:00 +0000

I am aware that not many of my recent posts have featured restaurants in London. This is probably nothing more than coincidence - I happen to have been on a few short breaks up north and the west country and while there was lucky enough to enjoy some very, very good meals indeed. However it is worth speculating that perhaps there has been a subtle shift in the foodie power dynamic in this country. Sure, London still gets the glitzy international chefs, the exciting new "concepts", the queues for sharing plates. But in borrowing so eagerly (and, it must be said, so successfully) from the great restaurant cultures of the world it loses a certain geographic authenticity. Other than a couple of pie & mash and salt beef bars grimly hanging on from the 19th century, there's no such thing as a "London" restaurant - for better or worse. Even our best gastropubs seem unsure whether to aim for Michelin stars or spit-and-sawdust rural grit. And recently it seems it's not just gastropubs that seem "happier" (if that's the right word... it almost certainly isn't) out in the regions than in the capital. The astonishing Where The Light Gets In proved without a glimmer of a doubt that there are few better places to host a multi-course seasonal menu than in a post-industrial northern town. And it would be impossible to run Coombeshead Farm in Fulham or Shoreditch even if you carved the building from its landscape in one go and airlifted it in one piece; these places exist because of where they are, not despite it. I mention all this because of the strange nagging feeling I had at Ynyshir Hall that this admittedly impressive operation out in the Welsh countryside doesn't have quite the same feeling of "belonging" of other equally ambitious sites I've been lucky enough to visit in the last few years. Partly this is entirely deliberate - head chef Gareth Ward is determinedly not creating Michelin-baiting dishes of stuffy French familiarity, and draws influences from the far east as well as his time at Sat Bains' restaurant in Nottinghamshire, with decidedly eccentric and otherwordly results. This is all perfectly fine and acceptable, and entirely up to them. But part of me wishes there had been just a bit more Wales on the menu - some salt marsh lamb perhaps (the hotel is right next to a salt marsh), some clever cheffy take on laverbread or rarebit, even something more recognisably British instead of - or even alongside - the procession of undoubtedly clever but unnervingly "international" bits and pieces that formed the tasting menu. That said, you can't argue that it's all interesting stuff. This was "Not French Onion Soup", a bowl of dashi gel, tofu and who knows what else, which was covered in a smooth onion broth. Duck was next, a sort of sausage-slice of leg meat topped with spring onions, ginger and soy. It wasn't a particularly brilliant idea - the powerful Asian dressing overpowered any subtlety in the duck flesh, if indeed there was any - but went down well enough. My pescatarian friend was subbed in a bit of salmon belly for this dish, which was enjoyable in a fatty way but totally impossible to eat with the supplied surgeon's tools. She ended up gingerly balancing flakes of salmon on the prongs then rushing them up to her mouth before they fell off. Bread was good, though giving me the choice of miso-spiked butter and a quenelle of wagyu fat meant quite a difficult decision had to be made re: butter/bread ratio per bite. I coped though; I'm good like that. "Sweet and sour" mackerel was conceivably the kind of dish that would have some people spinning for joy and others rushing for the exit. I'm afraid I was more in the latter camp - a very good bit of Cornish mackerel was drowned in what I've no doubt was an acceptably "fine dining" take on a Chinese classic but I'm afraid to this jaded palate tasted for all the [...]

The Rat Inn, Northumberland

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 13:37:00 +0000

Being a restaurant fan is, for the most part, being a restaurant critic fan as well. It's how I got into this blogging business in the first place, and the broadsheet restaurant reviews are still a huge influence on where I decide to eat. I followed Marina to Where the Light Gets In, and fell in love. I followed Jay Rayner to the Parkers Arms, and it was wonderful. Grace Dent told me to go to Jamavar, and I did, and by golly I'm glad I did. These people are professionals (and, it has to be said, have other professionals telling them where to go). I am merely an amateur. But the Rat Inn is mine. All mine. There's nobody significant outside of the occasional unhinged Tripadvisor report that's covered it, and because I'm not a Marina or Jay the chances of me completely ruining the place by recommending it wholeheartedly (because I do) are far reduced. With any luck, you'll have a good while before the rest of the country catches on and you can grab a table for 2 on a Friday night without too much bother. I can't promise that will last, though. Once the word gets out, they may have to start charging in advance and reserving places in the public bar. But till then, bloody hell, just go. I found them on Twitter - Twitter's had a hard time recently, what with you-know-who threatening nuclear war and the Nazis being given a bit of a free run, but for finding likeminded food lovers it's still second to none. I knew I'd like the Rat because conversations with the owners always ended the same way - with us agreeing, and me wishing I could eat there. So, eventually, I did. Here's how the evening started - home made focaccia, unbelievably buttery and lovely, an instant assurance we were in good hands. Of all the places that make their own bread, I'd say about half would do better to buy in from elsewhere - and there's absolutely no shame in doing so. But the Rat know exactly what they're doing.Rock oysters came dressed in what I think was a kind of cucumber jelly - very nice anyway, the oysters nice and lean and briney and complemented well by the dressing. Shetland Mussel broth was hearty and comforting, containing plenty of seafood and perfectly seasoned. It was also a remarkably generous portion size for a starter - a theme that would continue throughout the evening. The Kimchi Scotch Egg was the Rat's entry in the Young's Scotch Egg Challenge in the Canonbury back in February, and though they didn't win, this is still a beautiful thing, expertly timed runny yolk and surrounded in a punchy, chilli-spiked layer of sausage meat. Last of the starters, chicken & morcilla terrine was another deeply generous amount of food, an inch-thick slab of nicely seasoned charcuterie and two softly-toasted slices of brioche. Apologies for the dim photo, lighting at the Rat on this autumn evening was rather "romantic" but if I ever turn into one of those people who brings their own offset lighting rig, feel free to slaughter me in my sleep. One of the clever things about the Rat Inn is how they've managed to hold onto the spirit and atmosphere of a traditional, unpretentious country pub while still offering ingredients and preparations that you don't often see outside specialist restaurants. Grouse, for example, tricky to persuade the average pub-goer to shell out for in its fancier preparations, here was served as a rustic Wellington on a bed of creamed cabbage, and felt quite appropriate. It helped that it tasted great, too - soft, flaky pastry containing a neat medallion of pink game. It's probably down to nothing more sinister than the inconsistency of British cattle that my peppered local steak was a teeny bit on the chewy side. It had plenty of beefy flavour but was rather lean, meaning despite being cooked quite accurately to medium-rare it required a bit of jaw-work to get through. Howe[...]

The Salt Room, Brighton

Mon, 02 Oct 2017 11:53:00 +0000

On paper, or rather PDF, Salt Room looked like an absolute sure thing. A proper, grown-up seafood restaurant in a town that knows a thing or two about eating well, it seemed to fit the bill exactly; we were aware of big Brighton names like 64 Degrees, Pascere and Chilli Pickle but had settled on the Salt Room because we wanted something informal yet sophisticated, somewhere we could get messy on fresh shellfish and drink good cocktails and then spill out onto the pier for faded Victorian seaside fun. And things started well. Happy to escape the insane number of people that flock to Brighton of a weekend - good lord, this place is busy - the warm welcome of the Salt Room bar and the attentions of their head barman soon settled our nerves. Martinis were ice cold, made with an interesting gin from Islay, and a cute Bloody Mary style thing came with a mini pot of nacho chips and pineapple chilli salsa as a garnish. We were about halfway through these when a 20-strong crowd of hen-doers arrived so, thanking our lucky stars we'd got our drinks order in already, we headed for the restaurant. Apparently all the nice, bright, quiet window seats had been taken by people who had been here before, and knew to request them, so we were sat near the toilets between two massive tables of noisy families with toddlers. Quite why anyone would bring a 3-year-old to a smart seafood restaurant is beyond me - even if they find anything to enjoy about the food they'll be bored witless after ten minutes and want to race around the place screaming. Amidst all the darkness, chaos and the screaming, there were bits and pieces to enjoy. Clams in sherry with chorizo and beans were a tad on the salty side but contained plenty of plump bivalves if not much chorizo. Fishcakes had a nice smooth consistency and delicate crust, even if it was a bit low on fish - still, I can enjoy a deep-fried potato croquette as much as I can a fish cake, so this wasn't too much of an issue. Some of the slices of bread were a bit stale on one side, like they'd been sliced a good while ago. Again, not a terrible failure once they'd been dunked in the leftover clam sauce or spread with the nice homemade tartar sauce but it all added to the impression that their attention wasn't on the details. Even the menu contained a few spelling mistakes (we think they mean XO sauce that came with the crab, not ox...), and details, in a place like this, are eveything. It all rested, then, on the main seafood platter. If it had been up to scratch, all the issues with oversalting and stale bread and the squealing toddlers would be forgiven. We'd have knocked it all back, polished off a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet and been back on the streets of Brighton with a spring in our step. Sadly, it wasn't to be. But first, the good bits - oysters were full of brine and flavour, and the house mignonette was good. Raw scallop was nice, too, gently dressed with lime. But the rest of it? I was immediately suspicious that the Salt Room, a specialist seafood restaurant, only offers crab claws and not whole dressed or cooked crab. This makes me think that rather than buying in whole fresh crab, they're getting hold of frozen claws separately. I can't say they do this for certain, but that's the impression I got, and having tasted the end result I'm going to need a lot of persuading that they don't. Similarly the langoustine, desperately overcooked to mushy, had strange, bendy shells - again, if they were cooked from fresh I'd be very surprised. Prawns were similarly mealy and bland. And the less said about some terrible soily, chewy chips the better. Of course, the tragedy of poor seafood platters is that they still generally cost quite a whack. After having drowned our sorrows in a second bottle of Picpoul the bill came to £62.30 a hea[...]

The Parkers Arms, Bowland

Tue, 26 Sep 2017 09:23:00 +0000

Though it's often painful to share the world with their kind, the sad fact is that some people just do not enjoy eating out. I don't just mean that they are intimidated by posh dining rooms or tasting menus, that they can't face the queues at Tayyabs or baulk at restaurant prices; I mean that no matter what the situation, no matter how good the food or reasonable the cost, even if there's no cost at all, there will be some people that can't enjoy any part of the business of restaurant-going. My grandfather was one such person. Brought up in working-class Liverpool, it's tempting to assign his restaurant allergy to a lifelong dedication to frugality, and given he would hoard ketchup and mustard sachets from motorway service stations there was certainly an element of that. But even if the money had not been an issue, I still doubt he would have been comfortable in restaurants; I think he'd always rather be the person organising and helping rather than being waited on, and he had little interest in food generally - his preferred lunch was cold baked beans eaten out of tupperware, straight from the fridge. Hey, don't knock it if you ain't tried it. After a nearly perfect lunch at the Parkers Arms, cossetted by warm service and fat on dishes of hyper-local, seasonal brilliance, I wondered if even my grandfather could have remained immune to the charms of this idyllic place, nestled in the hills of the Bowland in Lancashire. It's a picture-book ideal of a pub, the kind of thing you mean when you talk about going "somewhere nice in the country" but so very rarely find. Outside, the Victorian building is handsome without being austere, with a large beer garden overlooking the rolling Lancashire countryside. Inside, it's clean and spacious and charmingly un-modernised, two dining rooms split by a wooden bar, with a gentle buzz from families, young and older couples, and their pets. Pubs like this are my own personal heaven, and I could have happily spent all day here sampling the local ales and feeding pork scratchings to the pub dogs, even if the Parkers Arms didn't also happen to serve some of the finest food in the country. But yes, on top of everything else, the food here is utterly wonderful. Stosie Madi is the chef in charge, and she colours a menu of attractive pub favourites with Middle Eastern touches - their lamb rump is cooked with kamouneh, and kibbeh is occasionally spotted amongst the starters. Above is turbot roe made into a kind of light tarama, drizzled with dill oil and with bright, crunchy radishes for dipping. Another table snack were potato skins, presumably a by-product of the creamed mash, aggressively crunchy and great dipped in the tarama. Nothing on this stunning dish came from more than a couple of miles from the Parkers Arms' front door. Venison fillet, seared to medium-rare, dressed in foraged blackberries, cobnuts and girolles and drizzed with some kind of herb oil, it was the ultimate expression of the power of locality and seasonality. Far from ham-stringing a kitchen, the ability to step outside and use ingredients that have been a part of the nearby environment up until a few hours previously lends the food a vibrancy and immediacy that you just don't - can't - see in most restaurants. This wild (local) rabbit and (local) pork was chunky and full-flavoured, studded with pistachio nuts and served with a sweet house piccalilli. The portion size was so generous that some of it made it into our lunch the next day, and I can confirm it only improves with age. Grouse was on the menu, so obviously I had to order it. It arrived meticulously filleted off the bone, soaked in a fruit/butter gravy (local blackberries) and on a bed of yeasty bread sauce. There was so much plump, powerfully gamey meat that it almo[...]

The Crown, Burchett's Green

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 10:42:00 +0000

Whatever your thoughts on Uber's corporate policies, the fact is their expansion out West has turned a day trip out to Berkshire to sample one of their surprising number of very nice gastropubs from a rare treat to a far more attractive and affordable proposition. Where once the last leg of the journey involved being ripped off by official cabs whose minimum charge for any trip, no matter how insignificant, appeared to be £15, the hop from Maidenhead station to Burchett's Green is now £7. Bargain. Which means I and a friend arrived at the 18th century village pub The Crown with extra money in our pockets for a nice cocktail, one unfortunately I've forgotten the name of but which involved fizz and bitters. Like everything at the Crown, it's heavily French-accented; the building - and service - may be as charmingly English as tea and crumpets but chef Simon Bonwick's style is very much traditional gallic haute cuisine in a way you sadly see very often these days. The closest thing I have to compare it to in recent years, in fact, is a meal at Little Barwick House in Somerset, which also served to remind us how much we have to thank the French for so many of our culinary achievements. Whether we like to admit it or not... In the bar before lunch alongside our cocktails we got to nibble on these cute little canapés, containing hummus, olive and almonds. On a doily, because you really don't see enough doilies in modern restaurants. I should also take a moment here to mention our table at the Crown, in a cute low-ceilinged space overlooking the main room which is one of the more quaint and cosy spaces I've ever had my lunch, and I highly recommend you asking for the same if you ever make a booking. First of a four-course "surprise" menu offered by the restaurant (and which we weren't likely to say no to) was this frankly vast pile of fresh crab meat, offered with the advisory "just watch out for shell, dad's eyesight isn't what it was" which just made me love the whole thing even more. They needn't have worried, anyway - there was no shell, and even if the reality of ploughing through so much white meat was more attractive during the first few mouthfuls than the last, you at least can't fault their generosity. Fish course was monkfish, dressed simply in a herby tomato dressing and topped with silky, buttery pulses. This was Mediterranean-French cooking of a kind I'd not seen in a little while, and it was nice to be reminded how nice monkfish works in this rustic (albeit expertly constructed) style. Main course was so French if you listened closely you could hear it sing La Marseillaise. A neat little medallion of what I think they said was veal shoulder, tender and perfectly-seasoned, was draped in a jus so thick, salty and syrupy it probably took three years off my life just looking at it. With that, a vast sweetbread, crisped-up and golden brown and without a hint of the mealy dryness that can affect these things, and some vibrant root vegetables, "turned" into neat little shapes that would have made Escoffier proud. Of course this wasn't a groundbreaking arrangement of ingredients but there are so few restaurants willing - or indeed able - to turn out such unashamedly haute cuisine dishes that you can't help but applaud them. Oh, and a word on the potatoes, bubbled up and brittle outside and silky smooth inside - there's probably a very fancy French term for them but I don't know what it is, so "world's best roasties" will have to do. You also have to admire anyone going to the effort of making their own canelles, a process I'm reliably informed is about as tortuous and difficult as pastry work gets. This version involved salted caramel, which is a twist on the traditional I fully support. Desserts[...]

Moor Hall, Ormskirk

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 11:04:00 +0000

The Rolling Stones would have you believe "You Can't Always Get What You Want", and in the vast majority of cases, in life in general and the restaurant industry in particular, this holds true. Running a restaurant is generally about compromise - making the best you can with a tiny space, making pasta and preparing veg in the dining area before the customers arrive, squeezing an extra table for two next to the loos to turn enough of a profit on weekends to cover you in the week, setting up your Big Green Egg in the car park next to the fire exit. It's a very lucky person indeed who gets to dictate exactly the shape, size and ambition of the restaurant they want to run, and are given the resources to make that vision a reality. Mark Birchall is a very lucky person indeed. It's hard to believe any British chef in modern times has had an opportunity like the one he's landed at Moor Hall, an exquisitely refurbished Tudor mansion on the outskirts of Ormskirk (of all places) set in acres of walled kitchen garden. Even my photos here can't possibly do the place justice - the scale is breathtaking; polytunnels groaning with chard, spinach and turnips; neat borders of borage, lovage and thyme; greenhouses of cucumber and peas. Part God's Own Larder and part food lover's wonderland, it's a kitchen garden as imagined by Lewis Carrol and Percy Thrower, an incredible achievement and great fun to while away time before dinner, seeing if you can guess which of the myriad of pods, berries and leaves will end up on your table that evening. Inside, original 16th century details such as carved mantlepieces, huge stone fireplaces and beautiful oak doors are lovingly preserved in the bar and reception area at one end of the building, while the other opens out into a modernist dining room, all clean lines an floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the barn and duck pond. It's clear that very intelligent, hospitality-focussed minds have been the driving forces behind the build, and as much as it's a vanity project for the chefs, it's at the very least as much customer-driven where it matters. It is a wonderful space to eat your dinner. But let's not let the building get all of the credit, because all of this spectacular horticulture and architecture would mean little if there wasn't the talent in the kitchen to make the best of it. Fortunately, Mark Birchall has a pedigree second to none in Modern British cooking, and with this bounty of produce on his doorstep (literally in the case of the garden, and figuratively in the case of the Goosnargh duck, Herdwick lamb and a myriad of other exemplary North Western suppliers) has created a tasting menu of such consistent joy and delight that, even in these early days, it deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as the very finest restaurants in the country. After a sample of charcuterie (because what kind of restaurant are you these days if you don't cure your own pork?) and drinks (rosehip and herb tonic, I think - very nice anyway) in the bar, first of the snacks substantial enough to make it on to the printed menu were these little pillows of black pudding and pickled apple, jet black puffed corn casings injected with a smooth, fluffy filling. Visually arresting (especially presented in a volcanic-black tagine), technically impressive and bursting with flavour, it was an early sign that Moor Hall meant serious business. Cute little baskets of crisped potato held smoked curd and fermented garlic, and were topped with flowers from the garden. If I'm going to be absolutely brutal these looked better than they tasted - a bit wet and bland - but as perhaps the only one of thirteen or fourteen dishes that I wouldn't rush to try again this isn't mu[...]

Coombeshead Farm, Cornwall

Sun, 03 Sep 2017 19:44:00 +0000

There's no way I'm going to make it through to the end of this post without being elaborately, embarrassingly gushing about my stay at Coombeshead Farm, so I may as well just get it over with straight away. This idyllic spot deep in the east Cornish countryside makes for as close to an ideal weekend away as it’s possible to imagine; an exquisite combination of luxurious country retreat and cutting-edge modern British restaurant, the fruits of artisanal animal husbandry and organic horticulture presented by a kitchen team at the absolute top of their game. It’s a wonderful place, and you should go as soon as you possibly can. With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the details. Every inch of the Coombeshead Farm experience is magnificently polished or notable in some way, from the grand comfort of the downstairs living rooms with their well-stocked honesty bars and cookbook libraries, to the bedrooms themselves, softened with thick carpets, absent of ugly 21st century technology (though supplied with WiFi, thank God) and with views of the rolling emerald green countryside from every low-beamed window. It may be a working farm, and though it feels brutal to point it out, a successful business, but where it counts it has all the securities of a five-star hotel, only a five-star hotel where staff fade in and out of focus enough to make you feel you have the place to yourself, and where you don’t need to lock your bedroom door. Even the practical, working farm side of things are beautiful, though. The symbols of the place are of course the mangalitza pigs; these magnificent beasts with their thick covering of wire-wool hair trot happily around their enclosure (for at least as long as their services aren’t, er, “required” anyway) and is the image you wake up to in the west-facing bedrooms. Other rooms look out over the sheep paddock and what has become a much-Instagrammed symbol of the farm - a grand row of tall trees at the top of a grass meadow, framed by hedgerows and resembling an impressionist painting. So yes, the place is knockout stunning beautiful, but never mind about that now, we have pigs to eat. Alongside drinks in the farmhouse living rooms, the first snacks appear, beginning with a selection of house charcuterie including duck I think as well as the all-important cured mangalitza shoulder blade and sausage. All incredible quality, as you might expect. With the charcuterie, nasturtium bud capers, punchy and addictive, and wild garlic “sauerkraut” so vibrant and intensely flavoured they were, for the few seconds before I tried the next thing to arrive, my favourite new thing in the world. These crackers were made from waste breadcrumbs, soaked, spread out like porridge and then fried with honey, whey and thyme. They cracked delicately in the mouth, releasing a sweet, oaty flavour. Leaves of lettuce that had been growing in the kitchen garden greenhouses moments earlier were spread with “walnut miso”, which complimented the hot, almost bitter lettuce stems for an interesting asian-tinged effect. Snacks done, and rehoused in the test kitchen/bakery/dining room, our tables were soon laid with bowls of pickles, plates of tastefully dressed garden vegetables, and home-baked sourdough with homemade butter. This just above is a plate of grilled white beetroot with cultured cream and parsnip, a heavenly blend of dairy and earthy veg which satisfied on every level. And this is kohlrabi (which we’d spotted in the kitchen garden earlier, elongated purple limbs holding themselves above the soil like weird alien invaders) dressed in walnut paste and various interesting dry spices. Onions came in a stock made out of br[...]

Find me on Just Opened London

Thu, 31 Aug 2017 14:10:00 +0000

In case you hadn't noticed I've started doing some bits and pieces - rants, roundups and reviews - for Just Opened London. If you have noticed then great - if not, here are the links to ones I've done so far:

The Wigmore review
James Cochran N1
Fancy Crab review
Marcella review
Plaquemine lock review
Farang review
London's best salt beef sandwiches
London's best cheeseboards
Restaurant guide to Battersea
The 7 best burgers in London
London's worst restaurant names

With any luck if you're a follower of Cheese and Biscuits you should find enough to entertain you in the above. It's more of the same, for better or worse.(image)

Madame D, Spitalfields

Thu, 24 Aug 2017 12:46:00 +0000

I like to think I can put up with a great deal of discomfort in the pursuit of good food - noise, queues, darkness, annoying useless hand dryers instead of paper towels - but if there's one thing guaranteed to ruin my evening it's the dreaded phrase "communal seating". I don't care how many people you think it's necessary to shoehorn into your shoebox of a restaurant in order to turn a profit; there is absolutely no excuse for forcing people to squeeze in next to each other like tube passengers to eat their dinner. It's awkward, uncomfortable and completely counterproductive to the most basic levels of hospitality. If two strangers' elbows are clashing while they tuck into their starters your tables are too close together, simple as that. With that in mind, Madame D's couldn't have got off to a worse start. Initial delight that they were able to fit the two of us in on a busy Wednesday night turned to despair after we saw where we'd be sitting - in the middle of a desperately overcrowded row of tables so close together that someone deciding they needed the toilet necessitated the whole table being pushed out into the middle of the room. I'm sure the extra £50 from a two-header made all the difference to that evening's profits, but is it really worth winding your guests up so much to achieve it? Anyway, rant over - for now. I mention this only because the food at Madame D's is so good that it deserves a nicer environment in which to enjoy it. A much nicer environment. Naga chilli beef puffs weren't anywhere near as hot as the involvement of the fearsome naga would suggest, just full of meaty beefy flavour and surrounded by nice soft pastry. Prawn crackers - presented in what I hope is an ironic plastic bag and not just picked up from the local cash'n'carry - came with an interesting Newari-pickle coleslaw (not as good as the Darjeeling Express Newari pickle, but not bad) and a genuinely lovely szechuan pepper sauce studded with pickled prawns, which impressed with a complex set of flavours and a good hit of chilli offset with cooling tomato. I'm not entirely sure why this snack, more often than not offered for free in Thai restaurants, cost £8.50, though. Maybe they were very expensive prawns. Hakka chilli paneer was another rich and satisfying set of flavours and textures, fresh vegetables and fearsomely hot chillies, studded with bouncy, salty cubes of cheese. It's abundently clear that the guys behind Madame D's (just as they proved at Gunpowder) are experts in constructing and presenting lively, characterful small plates Indian cooking. It's just a shame it has to be enjoyed while attempting to tune out the conversations of three different sets of diners within easy earshot. The one large dish we ordered was this masala lamb noodles, served in a tiffin tin, and topped with a fried egg. Sort of an Indian-spiced spaghetti Bolognese (I'm sure they'll hate me saying), it was, like all the food that had come before, confident and inventive, rather unlike anything I'd seen before in London (other than the odd set of flavours at Darjeeling Express), and endearingly quirky. Unfortunately despite the food - and the supremely attentive service, it has to be said - being so good, all everything else about Madame D's made us want to do was to wolf it all down as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there. Still, at quieter times, and perhaps if you managed to snag a table whose proximity to fellow diners was somewhat less than intimate, there's the potential for a really bloody lovely time to be had. So perhaps it's best, for the sake of my blood pressure, I just focus on the positives. Like[...]

Where The Light Gets In, Stockport

Tue, 15 Aug 2017 16:20:00 +0000

Let's not start this post with a paragraph about how unlikely it is that any modern British independent restaurant, never mind one as stunningly realised as Where The Light Gets In, should have surfaced in Stockport. If the past few years have taught us anything, it's that good food can happen anywhere, from the Faroe islands to Folkstone, from Southend to Land's End, and feigning aloof "surprise" when somewhere in Not London somehow gets their act together enough to run a decent restaurant is not only patronising but completely unmerited by virtue of the facts. Most of the best meals I've eaten over the last twelve months have been in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cornwall; the British food renaissance has reached all parts of the UK, not just the bits with access to the tube. Indeed, it's not only unremarkable that Where The Light Gets In should set up shop in Stockport but, once you settle into the dining room perched above the magnificent red-brick industrial landscape of this northern town, it feels almost inevitable that someone would want to run a restaurant here. It's the perfect eating space - bright, airy and spacious thanks to soaring high ceilings and well-spaced tables, and with views over the warehouse rooftops towards the Robinsons brewery. The kitchens are just an extension of the dining space, with gleaming stainless steel stations manned by serene, youthful chefs (including owner Sam Buckley), and service managed by elfin Emma Underwood, formerly of Burnt Truffle in Heswall. The whole operation hums with joy and energy. You're ready to have the time of your life before you even take your first bite. It helps, then, that the food is a parade of colour, flavour and invention that more than lives up to the promise of the surroundings. Even the nibbles that come with your first drink display a determination to impress - home made potato chips, greaseless and warm, are presented with an assortment of flavoured powders with interesting names like 'Lava' and 'Cod sack'. Cod sack, by the way, is literally that - the membrane that surrounds cod's roe, dried and powdered, and packing an incredibly intense punch of seafood flavour. WTLGI are determined, as far as possible, to be a "waste free" restaurant - vegetables are used in their entirety, and elements from the same animal crop up in various forms in different courses. It's a philosophy that a cynic may say benefits their bottom line just as much as it helps the survival of the planet, but is nevertheless very impressive. First of the twelve or so elements of the tasting menu (there's no choice, and they've only recently started doing a pescatarian option) is a crab "taco" made with cabbage leaves. It's a good idea, but one that works or otherwise based on the quality of the main ingredient, and fortunately the crab here - stunning quality, with chunks of rich white meat seasoned with some kind of clever dried herb - was something approaching perfect. In fact, I can't remember when I've eaten better crab anywhere. Next, a radish - a giant, bright red spherical radish looking like Rudolph the Reindeer's nose, in a bed of cod's roe. The radish itself was plump and gently peppery, with a great crunch, and had clearly had been plucked out of the ground only in the very recent past. But the cod's roe was extraordinary - silky smooth and spiked with I think what they said was "rhubarb vinegar", which provided a delicate, sweet, floral note. All the infusions and vinegars used at WTLGI can be seen on shelves at the back of the kitchen area, quietly fermenting away, a rainbow of kilner jars. Kolhrabi ate as good as[...]

Bang Bang Oriental Food Hall, Colindale

Mon, 07 Aug 2017 14:20:00 +0000

I'm not really sure how to go about reviewing a food court, or even if it's possible. Technically a collection of restaurants all using the same dining space, and sharing little else in common with each other than branded plastic bowls and plates, recommending (or otherwise) Bang Bang Oriental Food Hall is potentially no more useful than recommending "Soho" as an area based on the strength of meals at Hoppers and Kiln. Yes, if you go to Hoppers or Kiln, you'll have a great time. But what if you end up at the Breakfast Club? Nightmare. So, this post comes with a disclaimer - I loved Bang Bang, but perhaps I was lucky with the stalls I ate at, and maybe not all are up to the same standards I enjoyed at the conclusion of a 21-stop(!) trip up the Northern Line to Colindale on Sunday. There's a part of me suspects very strongly though that I wasn't just lucky, and that picking your way through the myriad of options in this aircraft hanger-sized food court is one of the most enjoyable ways of spending your weekend it's possible to have. First up, fried pork dumplings from Xi Home. The minimum order is £9.80 for 12 of the things, which seems like a lot until you start eating them and then realise it's nowhere near enough. Each had a good amount of pork mince and enough stock to occasionally fire a boiling hot squirt of liquid across the room when you bit into them, which was as hilarious as it was tasty. Uncle Chilli specialise in Sichuan cuisine, which if you're not aware largely means two things - lots of heat, and lots of offal. The menu listed 'skewers' at £2 each, but instead of being presented with things on sticks like I was expecting, the slices of beef trip, pig stomach and beef brisket were served in a big bowl of soup, blazing with Sichuan peppers. The trickier bits of a pig - particularly anything involving intestines - will never have universal adoration, but this stuff is my own personal regional Chinese heaven. Also from Uncle Chilli was a bowl of Century Eggs, hen's eggs treated to a mysterious process I think involving salt and ash which makes the yolk go dark green and the white turn transluscent amber. Doused in soy and garlic, they're a classic Sichuanese/Hunanese snack, and well worth ordering if you ever see them on a menu. Soft, salty slices of belly pork, soaked in oil and soy sauce and topped with minced garlic, were similarly addictive. Many of the concessions at Bang Bang are offshoots of larger restaurants - One 68, for example, is run by Royal China - and if that's true of Uncle Chilli I really want to visit the mothership. Because these people are good. Speaking of One 68, their dim sum is excellent - here piping hot siu mai of fresh, bouncy seafood, going very well dipped in chilli sauce... ...and silky cheung fun, bulging with big fat prawns and worth every bit of the £4 or so they cost. Just as in Chinatown itself, it's impossible to not be tempted by the glistening, golden brown roast ducks hanging in the Four Seasons stall, and it's a pleasure to report they ate as good as they looked here at Bang Bang, with a nicely seasoned breast meat skin,and without a hint of dryness. Next to it on a bed of rice is pork belly, with a delicate crisp skin and expertly rendered, moist flesh. And we weren't quite done yet. Pastries from Wonder Bake included somethings called 'Lava cheese tarts', an interesting cross between savoury and sweet that had a hot, molten filling. Oh, and the Pandan Egg tarts weren't bad, either. So yes, maybe we were lucky. Maybe the ramen from Samurai Ryu isn't brilliant, or the Pad Thai from L[...]

Wing Wing, Euston

Fri, 04 Aug 2017 10:43:00 +0000

The last few months saw the opening of two brand-new chicken concepts in London. To be honest, there have probably been a whole load of other new chicken concepts open in London, but I didn't get press releases about any others so they don't matter. One - Chik'n in Baker St - is from the guys behind Chick'n'Sours and is, predictably, brilliant; high quality chicken matched with a variety of interesting Asian-Fusion sauces and sides, and all for barely more than you'd spend at your local Chicken Cottage. It's great, and you should go. The other is Wing Wing. And it's not terrible, or even particularly expensive, it's just not what I was hoping it would be. For a start, they call themselves Korean. And what do you think of when someone mentions Korean Fried Chicken? For me, it's piping hot wings in a medium-crunchy batter, doused in a bright red sweet/sour sauce and coated in sesame seeds. "Dakgangjeong" I believe they're called and I've found no better example recently than these, which were a special collaboration between Gizzi Erskine and Tonkotsu a couple of months back. It's hardly Wing Wing's fault that I'm projecting my own expectations of what Korean food should be on people that - let's face it - are perfectly entitled to decide that for themselves, but shouldn't that style at least be an option on what is quite a large menu? There's room for katsu bao, chicken burgers, wraps, fish & chips(?), rice boxes, salad boxes and god knows how many desserts but the main event itself - the chicken - comes either as wings or drumsticks (no thighs or breast or option to have whole half or quarter pieces) and brushed with three "glazes" that are so lightly applied that they all just end up tasting identical. On my first visit I tried six "hot" wings, which were certainly hot in terms of temperature but barely registered at all on the Scoville scale. The chicken itself was strong and healthy-looking, with good firm flesh and nice big bones. And I suppose there interest in the skin, which was delicate and gave with a nice crunch. But it just didn't taste of anything; not spices, salt, even MSG would have been something - it was as if some crucial part of the cooking process (ie. a nice sweet/sour sauce) had been missed out. Drumsticks suffered from all the same issues as the wings, and despite choosing the "soy garlic" glaze had the same dry coating and tasted completely indistinguishable. They weren't bad, just boring, and animal welfare issues aside if I had the choice again I'd stick with Chicken Cottage. In fact, I don't know how Wing Wing treat their chickens as their website doesn't say, but they do seem a little more robust than your average high st place so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on that. Other menu items fared little better. A chicken wrap was probably the best of the things we tried, containing plenty of chicken and an interesting kimchi-spiked (I think) coleslaw. But katsu bao was very weird, the bun tasting more like deep-fried brioche than the usual steamed style and the chicken suffering from the same lack of seasoning and excitement that affected the wings and drumsticks. Kimchi coleslaw on top was nice though. So, little to love but little to hate either. For a place that on the face of it at least appears to be trying to stand out from the crowd, with its bold interior design and alcohol license, the only thing remarkable about Wing Wing is in the end how unremarkable it is - it's just another fast food place amidst the tourist tat of Euston, easily ignored. Which is a shame, really, c[...]

Club Zetter and the Zetter Hotel, Clerkenwell

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 12:14:00 +0000

This week came the news that Bruno Loubet, the Bordeaux-born chef who worked with Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire before running a series of fine dining restaurants in London throughout the 90s, has closed the Grain Store in Kings Cross, his last restaurant in London (if you don't count the one at Gatwick Airport. Which you shouldn't). I've often wondered what the lucky people who ate at places like Bistro Bruno (1993), L'Odeon (1995) or even made the trip to Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in the 1980s (where he was head chef at the time) made of the Grain Store. Loubet was once a very traditional fine-dining French chef, all demi-glace and fillet of beef with foie gras; the Grain Store was an odd departure, largely vegetarian and vegan, pushing things like grilled tenderstem broccoli and carrot and orange smoothies. Ironically, the bits I enjoyed most from the menu at Grain Store were the occasional dishes that involved meat; pigeon seared in the Josper grill, for example, or pork and lamb belly tamales. Fairly or unfairly I assumed that this was really where his heart (and skills) lay as a chef. Much as I admired Grain Store, then, and much as I recognise its importance in the grand scheme of things, you don't win friends with salad. And it's a pleasure to report that the replacement for Loubet's other restaurant, Bistro Bruno Loubet, on the ground floor of the Zetter hotel in Clerkenwell, is an honest-to-goodness belt-and-braces Modern European bistro, full of things like chicken liver parfait, pork belly and dry-aged steak. And if you think shoes like Loubet's are going to be hard to fill, well let me introduce you to chef Ben Boeynaems. I know I'm prone to hyperbole occasionally(!) on this blog, but I honestly can't remember the last time outside of the very finest of fine dining restaurants I've been offered dishes so utterly, seductively beautiful as Ben Boeynaems' at the Zetter. After a tray of good bread and salted butter came this gazpacho, lovingly drizzled with concentric rings of olive oil and cut across with a single long crouton dotted with neat cubes of olive and tomato. In the center, a miniature bouquet of cherry tomatoes and a sprig of micro basil. All of which astonishing artistry would mean nothing, of course, if it didn't perform on the tastebuds but fortunately it more than qualified on that front too - silky and herby and full of summer flavour. Asparagus with "crispy hens egg" was in its own way just as attractive. Bright green spears of asparagus, draped with wispy sheets of ham, lay next to a perfectly soft-boiled egg, coated in a thin layer of breadcrumbs. Yes, ham egg and asparagus isn't a revolutionary combination, but it's a great one, and when created with as much care and technical skill as this, is unbeatable. Doesn't it just look incredible? Chicken liver parfait had been made under a delicate dome of spun sugar and was - again - beautiful. The parfait was dense and meaty, lifted with a touch (I think) of alcohol and luxuriantly textured. Toasted brioche was similarly accomplished, soft inside and gently sweet. An in-between course of miniature surf'n'turf - steak tartare and anchovy - was as exquisitely presented as everything else and a fine show of technical ability. I think if you can't enjoy steak, gently loosened with mayonnaise and capers, topped with a crunchy nugget of deep-fried anchovy, well then there's no hope for you. Mains continued to draw gasps. If you've ever seen a better looking fillet of cod than this, with its gold[...]

Darjeeling Express, Soho

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 11:48:00 +0000

It's a sign of how good Darjeeling Express is, and how great its draw to hungry Londoners, that despite its off-the-beaten-track location on the 3rd floor of a rather soulless food/shopping mall, they were turning people away for the walk-in tables for the duration of the time I was there. For anywhere in the super-competitive Soho restaurant scene this is impressive; for somewhere barely a month old, well, clearly something pretty special is going on. Of course "barely a month old" doesn't quite tell the whole story. Asma Khan has been cooking her own brand of multi-regional Indian cuisine for a number of years now, first at a supper club in her own house and later at a short-lived (but wildly popular) popup at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. I loved it then, both the unusual dishes that took inspiration from Calcutta to the Himalayas, and service from Asma herself who is as good as ambassador for her food and Indian food in particular as any flashy PR firm. And I love it now, settled into this bright spot overlooking the Kingly Court central courtyard and serving a short and irresistably attractive menu of highlights from her Sun and 13 Cantons stint as well as a few fascinating new bits and pieces. First to arrive were the puchkas, which you may have seen elsewhere called things like gol guppas (Gymkhana) or dahi puri (Masala Zone and elsewhere) - little puff pastry casings full of chick peas and potato, into which you pour tamarind water then attempt to swallow the whole lot before the pastry soaks through and collapses. They're as fun as they are tasty, with an addictive set of textures and seductively spiced. Tangra chilli garlic prawns were nothing short of brilliant - the bounce and fleshiness of the absolute finest fresh seafood (I'm not going to risk declaring they were cooked from live, but they certainly tasted like it), in that slick, salty way that seemingly only the very best Chinese kitchens can achieve, matched with a tantalising note of Indian spices. Tangra is apparently Calcutta's Chinatown, and the Indo-Chinese flavours here are a deliberate tribute to that part of the city. I'm happy to report that the old Sun & 13 Cantons dishes have lost none of their charm or impact. Lamb samosas are still amongst the best in town, packed full of top quality lamb and presented with marvellous dippings sauces - coriander, tamarind and chilli. Is there a part of me prepared to admit I prefer the thick, chocolately black dal than the thinner, lighter yellow (Hyderabadi Tamarind) dal? Well yes, probably, but once you'd got used to the idea of thinking about it more like a soup than a side then it was still very enjoyable, rich and smooth with a nice kick of smoked chilli. More prawns, with the same beautiful fresh texture but this time in a Bengali sauce of spiced coconut milk. Darjeeling Express really do a very good line in prawns - either they've found a great supplier or just don't overcook them like most other kitchens in London. Or both. Venison kofta had a nice loose texture and came in a powerful tomato/chilli sauce. It's probably worth mentioning the tableware at this point too - the irregular shaped bowls give everything a nice organic aesthetic. "Hyderabadi mirchi ka saalan" was a kind of onion/chilli stew made with ground peanuts and sesame, and tasted far nicer than its grey complexion would suggest. It was a sesame salad back in their Soho incarnation that made me realise how much more there was to Indian food than I had previously discov[...]

The Goods Shed, Canterbury

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 13:27:00 +0000

Nine times out of ten if you asked any dedicated foodie scenester waiting at platform 13 at St Pancras late morning for the Javelin train where they were headed for lunch, they'd give the same answer - The Sportsman. Stephen Harris' pub on the coast near Faversham has over the last few years become something approaching a restaurant mecca; strictly seasonal food, cooked with care and presented with style, it is the platonic ideal of the gastropub and one dish in particular - slipsole in seaweed butter - is the star of a thousand Instagrams. You should go, as well, if you haven't yet. It's bloody fantastic. But on this particular Saturday morning, we'd decided to give another star of Kent a try. Canterbury is worth visiting even if you weren't very hungry (I particularly recommend a walk around St. Martin's church, built an astonishing 1,400 years ago and still standing), but we had a reservation at the Good's Shed, handily located right next to the station so as not to lose valuable eating and drinking time. Opened as an indoor farmers' market back in 2002, the Goods Shed has avoided the pitfalls of so many of these kinds of places by actually feeling like a real, normal, every day food market instead of one of those middle-class theme parks selling hand-painted tableware and bowls of olives. The restaurant, occupying a bright mezzanine level overlooking the bustle of the market below, feels similarly grounded, boasting huge wooden tables generously spaced apart, and is the kind of place you'd happily spend an entire afternoon. So we did. Lunch began with weeny soft-boiled quail's eggs dipped in an interesting salt/spice mix containing dried chilli and fennel seeds. House bread - foccacia I think - was nice and salty and came with a bright, creamy butter. It was also free, which was a nice touch. Mussels in a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce is a time-honoured recipe and one that still has the ability to soothe, comfort and satisfy. Perhaps there was a tad too much garlic into the mix, but that could just be a matter of personal taste. Artichoke broth was, for what I'm guessing was a completely vegan dish, fairly impressive. Of course, as a committed meat-eater it goes without saying I would have preferred a chicken stock base, but the huge chunks of artichoke had a nice bite and the rest of the veg had bags of flavour. A third starter had huge, soft chunks of slow-cooked ox cheek, but the surprise star of this dish were the carrots, which were startlingly sweet and densely-flavoured. Clearly the Goods Shed benefits hugely from its trade with local farmers - the range and quality of produce both in the restaurant and on the shelves below is really something. But while the starters had been decent, the mains were genuinely excellent. My own guinea fowl boasted a beautiful golden, herb-enriched crust and a cider sauce with a perfect balance of alcholic tang and meaty richness. The slices of black pudding were a bit odd - quite sour and with a strange uniform texture - but the Lyonnaise potatoes were soft and creamy, leaves of chard soaked up that sweet/sour cider sauce like a sponge, and the bird itself was bright and bouncy. The only notable problem with this lamb main was simply that there was too much of it. There were so many generous slabs of lamb, and they were so expertly rendered with their perfect pink flesh and salt/herb crust, that it felt criminal leaving any. A barley, grilled courgette and herb salad underneath ma[...]

The Pipe and Glass, Yorkshire

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 11:38:00 +0000

Nestled in a sleepy East Yorkshire hamlet, surrounded by acres of beautiful countryside, and blessed with a kitchen garden groaning with vegetables, berries and herbs, the Pipe and Glass would seem, on the face of it, to have everything going for it. And it's certainly the case that its achievements, such as they are, have hardly gone unrewarded - there's the Michelin star (held for the last 7 years running), the AA rosettes, the regular top-ten placing on top gastropub lists. My enjoying a meal there was, as far as it's generally possible to be, a Sure Thing - occasionally Michelin can be wrong, occasionally these top gastropub lists can be nonsense, but for everyone to be wrong at once would require quite the conspiracy. And yet here we are. It's not that I hated my meal at the Pipe and Glass - I enjoyed bits of it very much - but there wasn't quite enough of it going right to settle the nerves and too many things to grumble about to ignore. The Curate's Egg analogy doesn't really apply to restaurants - it is, after all, possible for a single dish to be a complete disaster without ruining the whole meal - so for an evening in a critically-lauded gastropub in an idyllic part of the country to go badly (or at least worse-than-average) requires problems in a variety of areas. Beginning with service in the bar. Given there were a grand total of two parties in the room, you would have thought the whole business of asking what we wanted then bringing it wouldn't have been beyond the abilities of the person assigned to the task. But maybe our waiter was having a bad day, or maybe he just didn't want to be there, because we spent a very long time waiting to be offered anything, and managed to get hold of a round of drinks just seconds before a different member of staff came over to usher us to our table before we'd managed to take a single sip. Nibbles did appear, though - watermelon and feta kebabs, covered in sesame seeds. They were nice enough. We'd ordered food with the drinks, and were somewhat surprised to be presented with our starters less than a minute after taking our table in the dining room. Being given food too quickly isn't usually too much of a problem - I'd rather that than have to wait - but nobody likes to feel rushed. My own was a rather bizarre arrangement of sliced pickled carrots - rolled and balanced upright like orange chimneys - in between slivers of crab crackers, on a bed of white crab meat, herbs, flowers and God knows what else. The issues with this dish applied to a large number of the dishes we ate - way too many ingredients, a naff presentation involving too many showoffy techniques, leading to a confusing, unbalanced whole. The pickles were all you could really taste, the crab meat was buried, and it was covered in so many random bits and pieces from the garden (fennel tops, coriander, flowers) that it just looked ridiculous. I'm afraid my pictures of the other starters didn't come out - it was dark on that side on the table - but all suffered from the same glut of ingredients and confusion of flavours. "Courgette three ways" came with so many flowers and sprigs of herbs and blobs of this and that (plus a deep-fried whole egg with its own ceramic bird foot stand) the main ingredient was completely lost, and "Marinaded Heritage tomato, avocado and burrata" was (thanks largely to a "spiced gazpacho granita" hiding somewhere underneath) cold, wet, and boring. House bread came in t[...]

Bell's Diner, Bristol

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 10:42:00 +0000

Whenever I have a great meal at a restaurant with basic décor - somewhere fun but functional like the Apollo Banana Leaf, perhaps, or the communal tables and strip-lighting of Silk Road - I think how utterly unimportant things like interior design are, and what a waste of time and money. Just give me a plate of home style cabbage and lamb skewers and who cares how comfy the chairs are or the state the toilets are in. It's all about the food, surely? And then, whenever I have a great meal at a restaurant with lovely décor, I think how utterly essential the correct ambience is to the overall success of a meal, and how interior design is as crucial as skilled and knowledgable front of house in the resulting level of hospitality. So the first thing to say about Bell's Diner in Bristol is that it's probably one of the most charming and attractive dining rooms in the city, and given that Bristol is about as charming as attractive as cities can be, that's really saying something. Cozy and ramshackle with that 18th-century pirate vibe that Bristol does so well, the tables are nicely spaced and intelligently located, so that I don't think there's a single one that you wouldn't want to sit at. There's just the right amount of interesting bric-a-brac hung on the walls and filling window spaces, and some lovely touches of vegetation to soften the hard lines. It's not plush - there's no starched tablecloths or hanging chandeliers - but in its own quirky way is just as comfortable a place to settle in and have your dinner as any gilded temple of gastronomy. Would I be going on about the décor if the food wasn't also up to scratch? Probably not, but it does mean than when the food did start to arrive we were more than in the mood to make the most of it. House pickles had a good crunch and a good balance of sweet & sour, and Iberico salami were soft and salty with a healthy marbling of all-important fat. This little pot of genius is something called "jamon butter" - soft, gently nutty ham (Iberico again I presume though don't hold me to that) mixed with butter. Spread on the house sourdough it's a fantastic way to kick off a meal, to the extent I'm surprised I've never come across anything like it before. It didn't last long. Morcilla (black pudding) with chorizo Iberico was another classic Spanish nod; clearly someone in the kitchens at Bell's has an affinity for the Iberian peninsula. Soft, loosely-textured pudding with a nice crust, topped with tangy, oily chorizo, it's hardly a revolutionary combination of ingredients and is one you may have enjoyed before if you've ever eaten at a Spanish restaurant, but that's hardly reason to dismiss it. Chargrilled prawns with tzatziki were perhaps a touch on the overdone side, but not so much as to render them unenjoyable. At the best of times grilled prawns can be tricky things to get right - undercook and they're gloopy and transluscent, overdo it and they go soily and wooden. Chargrilling adds an extra level of difficulty as if they cook too quickly all you'll end up with is the bitter taste of burned tendril. So all things considered, this was a fairly impressive plate of seafood. Quail is far more forgiving with the application of direct heat - the chargrilling here had left a lovely dark crust and a slightly pink interior, with a scattering of fresh herbs to lift it. Polenta I can take or leave in most instances, but at least wasn't too much[...]