Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Artigiano: ciao Bella

Very good, very droll.

Dinner with the parents. Is there anything more pressured? Yes. Obviously. But choosing a restaurant for your parents is fraught with difficulty. So much so that I feel rather hard done by having to choose, given that it was my birthday.

But the annual celebration of my escape from the womb meant I had to once again prove my mettle. Choosing Italian took seconds, choosing the restaurant did not. In the end, I found the closest, poshest Italian place to my house and crossed my fingers. Artigiano was the lucky venue, and it turns out that we were rather lucky too.

For a start there was a table. A rather panicked balding Italian asked us if we had booked, gesturing to his almost entirely empty restaurant as if it were packed with punters fighting over the last antipasti platter. After puffing out his cheeks we got a prime spot in the delightful conservatory part of the restaurant. The delight came from the fact that it juts out into the street, so people walking by had to walk around us to go by, which kept me entertained while my parents discussed my career, housing prospects, and made pointed looks at the fact that we were sat at a four person table, but I had failed to find a fourth person.

Artigiano is very, very Belsize Park. Super posh and frighteningly privileged, but even more polite about it. The same could be said for the waiters. They were friendly but stiff; quietly assured that the food they were serving was for richer men than me and my jumper with fake leather elbow patches.

We received some on-the-house salmon bruschetta (only once we had ordered our mains, as if we might run off having had some free food), which was tasty if not freshly made. We also had bread and olive oil, which for some reason came without balsamic – by far the best bit about Italian bread.

Startled by the fact that I could get a Parmesan basket with avocado, asparagus, poached egg and mayonnaise for just £8.80, I went for the largest starter imaginable, and quaffed it down before I could even say "the mayonnaise was a bit heavy". Still, down it went, complimented by our Gavi 2010.

Still full of mayonnaise I started on my homemade gnocci with tomatoes, squid and mushrooms. The fact that it was delicious was slightly offset by the shape of the gnocci, which reminded my forcibly of earplugs. They probably would have been very effective earplugs too, judging by their delicious sticky texture.

Given how excellent the courses had been thus far, I decided to challenge the chef by ordering a chocolate fondant. So often sold, so often from a plastic pot via a microwave. Reassuringly I was told this would take 15 minutes, and to push the point I was forced to wait 20. It was well done, joyously gloopy in the middle if a little dry in the sponge, but the creamy raspberry sorbet made this a forgiveable. However, the panna cotta had the texture of raw jelly. It also had a coffee cream, which as a caffeine intolerant man is a waste of a damned fine pudding.

All told though, it was hard to complain. The food was excellent, if a little heavier than I expect from three Italian courses. No one else had a bad word to say from the other tables, and our fellow diners lent a wonderful sense of community, with chubby ladies who dyed their greyed hairs blonde and wore wacky jackets and waistcoats gossiping gently behind thick upper-class accents. They fulfilled the ideal of the upper-middle class - money earned and money spent. The right feeling for a restaurant.

The prices are reasonable (£133 for three, all eating three courses), the staff and food genuine, and the place relaxed and welcoming. And so, with a warm heart and a content feeling – things only Italian food and great romances can give you – we departed.

12A Belsize Terrace
London, NW3 4AX

Artigiano on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 9 April 2012

Aquum: Thai to be nice

Flawed whatever moves it tries to pull.

Free food is not a phrase I treat lightly. No one should. But still I headed towards this review with real trepidation. Clubs should not do meals. It's not that I thought the Thai food would be bad, it was more the idea of eating in a place as soulless as a club.

However well decorated a club or bar is, during the day and early evening it lacks its most important decoration: the people. As a man who worked in pubs for several years, the dullest part of the shift was when there were no people. You see the stains on the floor and smell the stale alcohol. When you talked, the walls talked back at you. Without the context of people, most drinking venues are tacky and try-hard.

Which perfectly sums up Aquum the place, but not the food. For all its faults, we ate honest, authentic and fresh pan-Asian food. But there were a lot of faults. The dim sum pastry was soggy, the Malaysian curry  bland and under-seasoned, and the steamed bream fillet with red Thai spices too watery. We also had a duck stir-fry dish that was overcooked, and overcooked duck is a very sad thing indeed given how moist it should be. But we did get to drink fresh coconut juice straight from the coconut, and the lychee sorbet we had to finish was sweet and refreshing – probably outsourced, but still tasty. It was also nice to see that they had created a special wine and cocktail list to match the food, which shows an awareness of flavour and an aspiration to make everything work together. Which it doesn't, yet.

But it's the atmosphere on eating in a place that, just hours later, would be full of young hipsters drinking Champagne and yelling at each other over second-rate R'n'B that really grates. It's bizarre to enjoy authentic Asian food in such a overtly un-Asian surroundings. And it's not that the atmosphere is wrong, there just isn't one, and no bustling crowd to provide it. The food needs to sing, to draw people in. But Aquum's menu doesn't. The menu is so wide it would rival most Indian takeaways, assaulting you with choice and inevitably just driving you towards what you know and trust.

But what is strangest is who the menu is pitched at. A main course was between £7 and £9. Truth be told, this is a bargain. But it sits strangely next to the drinks menu, from which you can order a £3,000 bottle of Champagne. It's aimed at two completely different people, no one would ever order both.

If Aquum wants to convince some slightly drunk revellers that they don't need to run out for a kebab when the hunger strikes, they've pitched it right, although a menu of Thai finger food and platters would be better for a club. If they're are trying to be taken seriously as a restaurant they have got it wrong. Either way, the food needs to be better, the menu more concise, the drinks cheaper and the prices higher.

Aquum on UrbanspoonSquare Meal

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Byron: carefully crafted

An example of how to do a chain restaurant. Truly excellent.

Another day another Byron Burger opens up. This time on the trendy Charlotte Street, a road famous for tricking revellers into peoples houses, because the bars are so well disguised.

This blog should be renamed Fatman'sbaphands because all I seem to do it go to burger restaurants. Perhaps it's a sign I have restricted tastes, or maybe it just backs up my theory that the burger is the safety net of foods. It's borderline impossible not to enjoy a burger, however bad it is. That's why McDonald's rages on. A crap burger is still a burger.

Byron, however, do very good burgers. The buns were straight out of a burger van, but the meat is well seasoned and cooked rare and the vegetables are fresh. The Byron sauce was almost completely flavourless, but the crispy bacon gave all it had. Strangely, the gherkin was served on the side and was cut rather thickly, so when you added it to the burger it was like two railway sleepers poking out the sides. But all in all a glorious, sticky mess. But the onion rings were the stars of the meal. Crispy, oily, herby and gooey on the inside they were a real treat. You could taste the bad, feel the calories, revel in your slowly closing arteries and bloated stomach.

But even the onion rings couldn't hold my attention for long. Byron does a spectacular job of seeming personal and unique despite being an enormous, faceless chain. This Charlotte Street "offer" as they say in the business, is in a converted pub. During it's time as a boozer is musty have been quite a dingy dive. It's long and thin. It's windows hardly let any light in. You can imagine opening the door onto old men in flatclaps, who cover their eyes from the daylight, toothless mouths agape.

Now it's got white and black tiles, chrome around the bar, US-style booths and even, on the way to the loo, a walk way where you can look down on the diners. For some reason that pleases me, to see the balding patches of tubby men from an angle they never expected to have exposed.

But for all this there is one thing that makes Byron a GOOD chain, rather than just a chain. And that is the beer list - full of US and UK craft beers. Amercian IPAs, Hells lagers and porters. Whether they are matched to the food is hard to tell, but they all have high ABVs and more than coped with the strong flavours and textures of the meat. It's an exceptional touch, proof that a little thought can put you miles ahead of any competition.

It is, of course, being ahead of the competition that can send you spiralling off into faceless chain mode. But for now, Byron deserves it's success and it's crown as the best burger chain.