Monday, 2 December 2013

E. Mono: follow the kebab shop light

Last night a kebab saved my life.

So last night I had the best kebab I have ever had.

A kebab is many things to many people. To some it's the crowning glory of a night out, others the silver lining as you call time on a terrible one. To some it's sobering, to others it's nauseating. Sometimes it ends up being dinner, occasionally the remainder ends up being breakfast too. But it is one thing to all of those people - still just a kebab.

E. Mono has the great honour of being one of Giles Coren's five favourite restaurants. Given that half of them fall within two miles of his home, it's possible that geography figures highly in his decision, but don't let that distract you. E. Mono, with its quaint Victorian signage and smiling chefs, make great kebabs to drunks. They make their own wraps, saving us from the terminally shit pittas that cost-cutting kebab houses stick to. You even get floury fingers. Floury fingers! In a kebab shop!

But it's their meat when the difference is most noticeable. Their lamb may come off an upright spike next to your Gran's electric radiator, but the meat is juicy, tasty and gorgeously caramelised and burnt around the edges. It must be great sourcing, because the methods are the same. The sticky, sweet flavour just cuts right through the watery salad and slightly crispy flatbread. It fills your nose and mouth with flavour and cracks your mouth into that drunken, dribbling smile your friends know so well and you only see in blurred Facebook photos.

I was going to say "Imagine if all kebab houses were like this", But we shouldn't have to. They all should be already. I paid £4.95 for my medium lamb shawarma. No more and n less than any other kebab I've ever ordered. So why can't other places do it?

Screw it. Imagine if they did.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Soho Diner: a chip off the old block

Just another diner. Not different, just better.

Diners are like London buses because they're FRICKIN' everywhere. I went past about five on my way down Old Compton Street to the Soho Diner, including several I've already reviewed (like Ed's Easy Diner). And when you're not tripping over diner-themed restaurants, you're walking headlong into trendy burger bars. It's ridiculous.

And I love it. And I also love the Soho Diner. I was as hungover as one of Michael Barrymore's party guests on Saturday and still I finished that burger. True, I had to duck out to the loo twice just to be safe, but I was determined to get through it.

What the diner has so cleverly done is recreate was the McDonald's burger is in our heads before we actually eat it. The patties are thin but rare, the sauce thick and sticky, the cheese so gloopy it sticks to your throat, and all in a sweet brioche bun that feels cheap but so, so good. Perhaps sensing my hangover shakes (or simply smelling the alcohol) they asked if I'd like bacon and eggs on my burger. Ambitiously I said that sounded excellent. It made it seem more like brunch, which is a good, hearty thing to eat when suffering the drinker's withdrawal. The bacon was something else, about 2cm thick and rammed with sweet honey and gammon flavours. And then the egg was perfect and runny, but perfectly circular, just like the crap McDonald's ones.

If all that sounds a little too sycophantic don't read the rest, because I haven't even started on the milkshake - pistachio and honeycomb. Oh my days. If I'd sicked it up I'd have probably tried again it was that good.

Having ranted about the food, the location seems somewhat moot, but it is rather nice. Very spacious and wooden, with cocktails on tap and a decent enough beer list (could do better Soho House, could do better). There was even a European-like gathering of probably-older-than-you-think guys in leather jackets drinking beer from stemmed glasses outside, despite the freakish weather and an enormous delivery truck (probably needed for the extra thick bacon) blocking their view of the street. This is why I have no picture of the outside.

There are some pretty shoddy reviews of the Soho Diner on the usual customer websites. They're hardly a barometer for good food, but I am baffled. It's not changing the world, but Soho House (who run the place along with Chicken Shop, Dirty Burger, PizzaEast and Dean Street Townhouse) never try too. They just nail it. Whoever is at the top knows what the public want, and from a diner it's trashy food done in style, in a place where they would want to come at any time of day. It's open 'til 3am at the weekend, so I know where I'm going when caught short and drunk in Soho. Hopefully I won't need loo breaks at that point.

Soho Diner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Smokehouse: all smoke, some fire

A great meat palace with a bit of gristle

I used to cycle past The House by Highbury & Islington every day. It had always intrigued me, because despite looking like Wetherspoons, a friend assured me it was "The Ivy of Islington".

I doubted that very much. I went there to prove my point but got so drunk I couldn't remember enough to back up my argument. Still, my suspicions were confirmed when it closed.

To my joy it reopened as The Smokehouse, advertising delicious meat, lots of smoke and, most importantly, a crate load of great beers. When you walk in the first thing you see is a row of 20 taps, all marked with Sharpies to tell the baffled barmen which is which. You then approach the bar and see that right around the inside of it runs beer fridges practically falling open with craft beer. On the wall is a blackboard entitled "Beer and food matching" that lists the best drinks for their dishes. The wine doesn't really get a look in, which is a refreshing change of tack.

Sadly on my first visit I was eating brunch (see my egg and beef hash, left), and decided that just hours after stopping drinking, the last thing I should do with breakfast was have a beer. On this visit I was not so reserved. I dived straight in to order a Mikkeller APA, along with a croquette of breadcrumbed beef with gochuchang mayonnaise. The concept of both is trashy and flawless, the delivery less perfect. Most disappointingly the beef, having been fried and then deep fried, was a little dry. Still, that gochuchang mayonnaise made from fermented chillies and soy beans, was incredible, the acidity slicing through the meat like a knife.

For the main I had only one choice once I'd seen it - ox cheek with cauliflower cheese, which I paired (at their suggestion) with Pressure Drop's brown ale. That cheesy sauce was something else, as was the gravy the meat came in, but again the meat was a little dry. Given the clever cooking on show elsewhere, how did the chef make a fatty cut like ox cheek seem dry?

Still, the mopping businesses at the end with their crispy roast potatoes was a memory to treasure. It was chips, cheese and gravy the way a Michelin-starred place would do it.

By this point my companion was well stuffed (as well as "not really being a pudding person", as if that's a valid statement) but I still had room for their Friday Pie - which turned out to be a seriously rich, seriously dark chocolate tart. It was one of those tarts where the pastry is so thick you think you'll go through the plate before the pastry gives in, but it needs it with a gloopy chocolate. With these flavours the remnants of my brown ale had no chance and tasted like soda water. Perhaps more of  Belgium is needed on the beer list so the puddings can meet their match too.

Given the wealth of brews on offer we decided we had to have one for the road. The Smokehouse likes to put itself across as a pub, and does have the comfortable vibe of a country inn, with exposed wood, fireplaces and soft lighting. And they were happy for us to take our time - which is lucky because if you  rush a 5.9% beer that cycle home can get fraught.

Luckily my wallet was a lot lighter, so at least I was balanced on my bike. £90 for two did seem a little steep, especially when I'm not convinced by the quality of the beef (the cooking was excellent) but when the beer is this good, the place this lovely, and elements of the food super you'll always go back to give it another try.

Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Flesh & Buns: for goodness sake

Great fun, buns have room for improvement

Although it deserves a lot more, my enduring memory of Flesh & Buns is that Sake is disgusting. Mostly it reminded me of those horrid Strawberry Volvic waters, so weakly flavoured that there are more tannins that taste notes.

Still, far be it from me to dismiss a national drink out of hand (oh, OK then I will). I still drank a bottle of it and had a wonderful time while doing so. Flesh & Buns is a terrible name for a restaurant, and according to my limited knowledge of Eastern cuisine a slightly confused concept, but it's a great place to eat anyway.

Tucked underground on one of the thousands of roads that come off Seven Dials in Covent Garden, it has a lovely atmosphere with booths and great long tables that dissect the room, where everyone shares elbow space and conversations. It claims to be an Izakaya - essentially an aperitivo bar with Sake rather than wine - but if you had to wait 90 minutes to go to an aperitivo bar you'd be in the nearest pub eating pies before you could say "I hate the London foodie scene".

No, Flesh & Buns is about the food, as the silly name suggests. But it is pretty casual. You order your buns, order you meat, order your sides and then drink Sake and leisurely chomp your way through it. At least that's how it should have been. Instead, we ordered our buns, ordered our braised pork in mustard miso and ordered our yuzu mayo broccoli. The broccoli arrived first and was frickin' delicious - but a very strange form of starter. Given that we had waited so long to go in, we devoured it in moments. We then received our salmon avocado roll, again excellent, with wasabi that got RIGHT up your nose like you just snorted it. I am told I have never had great sushi, and I'm sure I will be told this wasn't it. But it was damned delicious.

We then waited, and waited, and waited. How long does it take to steam a bun? It would seem about 30 minutes, because I doubt they slow-cooked the pork in that time. The flavours themselves - the sweet pork and zingy miso, was perfect and the sweet sauce that I couldn't even begin to describe (the sake was getting to me) brought it all to life. However, the salad it came with looked like it had been emptied from a Floretti salad bag, and I'd be very, very surprised if that's how Hirata buns come it Taiwan and I feel little that the attention to detail (and margins) got a little squeezed here. The meat was also a little dry towards the edges, which meant more dipping was needed towards the end of the meal.

For pudding we went with a friends recommendation of S'More. Despite sounding like a mix between a Lord of the Rings character and a pound shop, it turned out to be a tabletop campfire with marshmallows for toasting. Joy! On top of that, you got some delicious green (essentially white) chocolate and ginger biscuits to make a sandwich. It really was special - but at £8 for two business-card sized sandwiches not so special you'd want to do it again soon. But by then I was too drunk on Volvic water to care.

For better fillings I'd go to Yum Bun, but Flesh & Bun has it's charms.. It's slick, clever and importantly very tasty.

Flesh and Buns on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Rotary, Old Street: filth, glorious filth

Probably the best chicken burger I've ever had.

So after my experience at Mahiki's Rock Lobsta (sic), where if I hadn't paid half price I might have gone postal at the sight of the bill, I wasn't that keen to go to another Carl Clarke restaurant. Along with the roller disco restaurant (which surely is just asking for a dreadful stitch) I decided in my head he was all style over substance.

But my burger-loving colle
ague came across the Rotary, just south of Old Street roundabout, and was adamant we had to go. He watched my heart sink as I thought about another overpriced attempt to doing something straight laced in a "punk" way. I can assure you, the only punk in the world with enough money to eat at Rock Lobsta is Iggy Pop, or John Lydon since that gut-wrenching butter advert.

I've gone past the Rotary many a time, glancing into its spacious, seemingly soulless interior, then heading straight past it to Yum Bun. It seems I've been making a mistake.

Not every time mark you. If you ate what I ate at Rotary every day, not only would your afternoons in the office become more sleep ridden than an unemployed narcoleptic's, but you'd also be larger than Lisa Riley in about a week. Their food is pure filth. Pure, gorgeous filth.

Burger me

I had the chicken burger, the healthy cop out. But at £12 I was expecting something pretty special, and this one was no compromise. Deep fried in what felt like an inch of batter, coated in spoonfuls of tangy, moreish burger sauce and topped with crunchy shredded veg it was almost more than a man should, or even could, stand. At first bite there was nothing clever, but on second look it was genius. How the bun didn't turn to mush I don't know, how the batter was crispy even in the sauce is a mystery, and how I managed to eat it is a question I'm still asking myself. Sometimes I have Vietnam-style flashbacks as I sweated and strained my way through it, but I never wanted to stop.

The chips were the perfect mix of trash and genius too. Looking and initially tasting like the perfect McDonald's chips – the ones in your head before you get the box of droopy starchy twigs – they were so much more satisfying, with their meaty flavours from the beef dripping. Not a place for vegetarians then. 

And that's the only issue with the Rotary. Just like at Clarke's Rock Lobsta (sic) I have no idea who would eat there. We went on a Thursday lunchtime, when office workers try to convince themselves the weekend is almost upon them, and it was pretty much dead. It was,
in all truthfulness, far, far too much for lunch. I felt like a bag of sand for about 24 hours. So it's an evening thing, but I rather think most people run from Old Street as soon as 5.30 hits. It's not really somewhere you want to stick around in unless you're headed to Fifteen, the Nightjar or the Old Fountain. I admire Clarke's ballsy approach for putting restaurants where they don't belong (Silicon roundabout, a roller disco and a crap nightclub) but whether it makes business sense I don't know.

Still, I'll be back. But I might skip breakfast beforehand.

The Rotary Bar & Diner on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Five Guys Covent Garden: fast food failure

Not fast. Not cheap. Not that tasty.

BREAKING NEWS: blogger eats burger at trendy new joint.

Forgive the sarcasm, but sometimes my own hobby bores me. But I had to go didn't I? A London food blog without a Five Guys review would be like a burger with no pattie.

God knows why though. Because Five Guys fails at EVERYTHING it attempts to be. Like many of my compatriots, my overwhelming feeling after leaving Five Guys was that I had just been on the receiving end of a lot of broken promises. Not all of those promises were made by Five Guys - many by its fans who had visited it in the US - and some were more hurtful than others. But a promise is a promise.

For a start, there are a lot more than five guys working for them. There were hundreds of minions, all dressed like they were on their way to a baseball game. Five bouncers at the door, five at the registers, five at the chip fryer, five building the burgers and five actually frying them. Then there were five cleaning up and five doing precious little but watching the queue. I make that Thirty-Five Guys.

It feels a lot like a McDonald's - but red is the colour. There's the crappy plastic diner feel, the queues at the registers and terrible, terrible uniforms. In fact, it would sit quite comfortably next to an Aberdeen Angus Steak House.

Like most tourist traps it tries to hide behind smiley staff, promises of provenance and fun text on the walls (the best one being "hand shaped burgers" - I really wish they were hand shaped rather than round). I'd say they have misunderstood the kind of people London burger lovers are, but that's not actually their market. Theirs is tourists, Americophiles and, apparently, people who wear K-Swiss and T-shirts with Rihanna on. The bloggers and burger lovers have hated the place.

The experience is pretty stressful. You queue once to order, and then sort of hover around waiting for the food in the middle of the atrium. As always happens when Brits are forced to loiter, a queue forms. So every now and then an employee has to come and break up the queue as it threatens to go out the door. It's a bonkers system.

The burger

The burger itself wasn't a disappointment - but more because my expectations were pretty low. To be fair, it probably slightly exceeded them. In the flesh they are not half as ugly as most blog pictures imply. It didn't look like it had been run over or delivered to you in an air drop. The meat was nicely cooked - the committee of cooks crowded around the grills evidently voted to take it off the heat at the right time. And the bread and toppings were good and fresh.

But to say all that is skirting around the issue. It didn't really taste of anything. The meat was almost fat-less and therefore flavourless. And it wasn't so much underseasoned as not seasoned at all. The two patties were generous enough, but both were thinner than the huge wedges of gherkin, which were so big that the predominant texture of the burger was crunchy. Burgers shouldn't be crunchy. They should be sloppy, juicy and almost impossible to eat.

With the burger you can get spicy or salty chips. By which they mean spicy chips or just chips. I went for just chips. I'd watched the bagger fill my pot with chips, then pour another scoop of chips straight into the bag. That's a lovely touch, because the best bit of going to McDonald's is fishing out those bonus fries from the bag at the end. Sadly I couldn't eat them all. They desperately needed an extra few minutes in the fryer. Some were soft and limp, which is really unpleasant for skin-on fries.

But the worst bit is the price. At £10.75 for burger and chips it's not cheap. A friend of mine said we shouldn't compare it to our more gourmet burgers because it's fast food. But it invites the comparison by pricing itself wrong. Fast food should be quick, cheap and tasty. Five Guys fails on all counts. It's £1 more than MEATliquor, £2.75 more than Dirty Burger and a whopping £3.25 more than Honest Burger. All of which do considerably better food in better places. The latter of those two do it faster too.

People will pay the price for a bit of Americana. Hell, I paid the price for a bit of Americana. But all I kept thinking while eating it was this could really do with a bit of Big Mac burger sauce. And that's not a good sign is it?

Five Guys Burgers & Fries on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Pizza Pilgrims: almost perfect

Best Pizza in Soho. Go now, beat the queues

I knew from the moment I got to Dean Street something was wrong. But I couldn't put my finger on it. As I approached Pizza Pilgrims my sense of unease grew. I stopped and stared at the place - somewhere I had thought about so much during the day, longing for the clock to strike six while time crawled along. The place looked right - all shiny, green and new, with big windows that let you see their roaring pizza oven.

That's when it hit me. I could see in. Where was the queue? The braying mob of Instagrammers, bloggers and wannabe media types? I was here, where were my brethren? This is PIZZA PILGRIMS for god's sake. Heroes of the street food scene. With their first pizzeria. On DEAN STREET.

I probably shouldn't have shouted that in the middle of Dean Street, but I was disorientated. Luckily not so much I couldn't find the door.

I’ve always wanted to try their van, but I work in the wrong part of town. Whitecross does many wonderful foods, but Italian is not among them. So at 6.30 we arrived at their pokey little restaurant on Dean Street – right opposite the behemoth of Pizza Express.

We weren't exactly welcomed – there’s no queue so we were ushered inside and asked to sit opposite a sweltering wood-fired oven. There we sat awkwardly on stools and waited. It was a Hello! Magazine short of a GP’s waiting room. Some of us were offered drinks, others nothing.

But within five minutes we were told to go downstairs by a nurse. I mean waiter. So we stepped into the cool, tiled cellar. It’s twice the size you’d expect, somewhere between a wine cave and a new gastro pub loo. I was brought a pint of the only beer available (sadly just Moretti) and left to peruse the menu, printed on the ubiquitous landscape brown recycled paper. There’s quite a selection of pizzas. Nothing as complicated as the Crate Brewery menu, but equally as tempting. Short of listing everything (click here for the menu) they had a something for everyone (Margheritas, nduja, salami, truffle), as well as something for no one (here’s looking at you marinara). They also had what turned out to be the best damned panzanella I’ve ever tasted, the secret being seriously thick dough, so that the moisture from the tomato doesn't cause the bread to fall apart but become clumpy like over-cooked gnocchi. Now THAT’S a texture you want in a bread salad.

The panzanella, which we had assumed was a starter, arrived at the same time as the pizza. This was made doubly bonkers because Pizza Pilgrim suffers from small-table syndrome, an affliction that affects 9 in every 10 Soho restaurants. There was simply not enough room for two pizzas, a salad, four glasses and the condiments. Because the panzanella couldn't go cold, we ended up eating it after the pizzas. In such a carb fest though, it mattered less.

Best pizzas in Soho

My friend and I went for the artichoke, ricotta and smoked garlic oil and the truffle and portobello pizzas, splitting them between us. In their determinedly authentic style, the dough was soft so you could roll and fold and stuff it in your mouth with glee, and the toppings were delicious. I'm not really a fan of pizza bianco, because it often loses the sweetness a pizza needs, but the truffle really sang through on the mushroom pizza. Sadly, the other was less successful. The artichokes were a little dry, and probably could have done with being chopped a little smaller so they weren't like boulders on a flat landscape, and there wasn't a hint of smoke to the garlic oil. Smoke was, in fact, lacking in its entirety due to the fact that their pizza ovens are fuelled by gas. I'd rather see the traditional methods, in keeping with the rest of the restaurant. Smoke also does wonderful things to cheese and bread - they're missing a trick.

I've heard it said that bad pizza is still pizza (I assume it wasn't a marketing slogan). Anyone who's picked up a Tesco value pizza can testify that's not true. But it's true that at its worst, Pizza Pilgrims do the best pizzas in London. Not the best bases (that goes to Chris Bianco at Union Jacks), not the cheapest (that's Franco Manca) and not in the best place (that's Crate), but if you want a purist's pizza, there's no where else you can go.

So where people are going I don't know. Take advantage of the lack of queues, it probably won't last.

Pizza Pilgrims on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 29 July 2013

Honest Burger (Camden): Truly super

One of the best British-style burgers – honest

Just when you think the dude-food-burger craze can't get more crazed, something reminds you that people's appetite for it is insatiable. Last month it was the opening of the universally panned Five Guys and Shake Shack. Then it was the burger top trump cards and cufflinks (!). Now, apparently, people are doing burger crawls all the way from Five guys, through Byron, MEATliquor, Patty & Bun, Hache and on to the latest fashionable burger bar to make a bid for global domination – Honest.

Tucked away in the stables of Camden, the third Honest Burger is small, open and slightly weird. Separated from the street by a wooden fence you feel like you're eating in a pig sty. I find it suitable, although quite how you could pig out an Honest Burger after five other cardiac arrests in a bun is beyond me, especially since Honest's portions are by far the most generous of all of them. They were also, with the exception of Dirty Burger, by far the cheapest. £8 will get you the feast you see before you.

There are a couple of other things that set Honest aside from its many, many competitors. The burger itself is decent and flavourful, the bun passable, but it's everything else that matters. They use British cheeses to top the burgers, something I am all for. You have to be in the right mood for American cheese, which is more a pungency in the noise and a oil slick on the roof of your mouth than a flavour. At Honest you can get a mature Cheddar, Red Leicester or, joy oh joy, a Stilton. All of which would have worked a treat with their lovely red onion relish.

The chips were excellent too – the opposite of Bukowski's perfectly formed crunchy monsters, Honest's  rosemary salted chips are gnarly, deformed and utterly ridonkulous. They look like hand-chopped actually meant they had Jackie Chan in the kitchen, screaming as he karate chopped his way through tons of spuds for minimum wage. And goddamn it they were delicious. Again, I was let down by the presence of Heinz and Hellman's – both great sauces, but I always want more invention in these places. Once you nail a burger, you need to keep improving things.

I can't complain about the beer list though – Redchurch dominates and the Bethnal Pale a great choice, but we also really enjoyed the Big Wave – a Hawaiian golden ale we ordered out of sheer curiosity. The friendly waiter didn't even blink as we ordered 5 drinks for four people. He evidently knows his list is good. I liked him a lot until he persuaded us to play a game of credit card roulette, where you all put your card in the bill fold and the person whose card is drawn pays…

... but I maintain the food was worth the £60 I had to cough up. Honest Burger do great burgers, better toppings and even better chips, with a good beer list. Where else would you go when caught out drunk and hungry in Camden? I can;t think of a better idea. Honest.

Just make sure you're really hungry, and if you're burger-bar crawling have 999 already dialled out on your phone – Camden Lock might be a bridge too far.

Square Meal

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Il Tempo: almost the dolce vita

This Aperitivo bar could be so much better

What if I told you there is a wine bar in Covent Garden that no one knows about? Where you can waltz in at 7pm on a Friday, grab a table, order a house red for £19 and enjoy free snacks all evening.

You'd call me a liar wouldn't you? You'd click off this blog raving about lunatics, leaving me to rue such a bold blog entry and calculate "bounce" statistics on Google Analytics. But more fool you, because such a place does exist. It's called Il Tempo, and just happens to be next to one of the best (and therefore busiest) pubs in Covent Garden – the Harp. So while the weekend-lovers jostled for position at the bar and bought two pints each so they didn't have to queue again, my friend and I sat in our air conditioned wine cave, cut off from the bustle of outside by a sense of wellbeing and a MASSIVE coffee machine.

As we sat and supped our Salento Primativo we took in our surroundings, marvelling at the find. There are lots of reasons why no one seems to know about this place. First and foremost because it looks like a shop. And if it doesn't look like a shop to you, it probably looks like a café - and neither of those places are likely to serve wine and free food. But we weren't complaining. We were in the know. We could now use that timeless, self-inflating phrase "I know this little place not far from here" when we're out with friends and stuck for a venue. So long as you don't say something crass like "a hidden gem", you're suddenly like Samuel Pepys or a walking TimeOut.

The thing is though, word of mouth is a damned powerful thing in London, so Il Tempo really should be better known. And as I write this it becomes clear why it might not be. For a start the décor needs work – it feels less like an authentic aperitivo bar and more like a dying greasy spoon. It's a beautiful space that they've done nothing with. It's all Ikea furniture and 90s art prints. Of course, outdated decor and great food is pretty much the European way, so we shouldn't judge it on looks

Sadly, and it kills me to say it, the other problem is that the food, while delicious, needs work. Look at the picture - it looks like the kind of thing Kerry Katona might eat in an Iceland advert, and the pastry-based bites tasted like they had been made a few days ago. That's probably harsh, especially given the risk they take by embracing the way of aperitivo bars in a city famous for wanting everything for free, but this place is so damned close to being the best damned place I've set foot in in Covent Garden that I have to be blunt in the hope it may come to fulfil all my dreams.

They serve daily specials as mains, which we didn't try, but I'd trust the food enough to – our waiter claimed the chef had worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I don't know about that, but I can tell you, if he ups his game, makes the food more inventive and beautiful to look at, and the owners have a little refurb, I might consider using that terrible, terrible term "hidden gem". Maybe.

Il Tempo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Crate: a piss up in a brewery!

Great beer, great pizzas, Crate place

Well if ZAGAT says it's the trendiest new bar this side of the sun then I had to go. Because their business model isn't built on the opinions of idiots and the ramblings of trolls. Oh wait.

Describe Crate with even a hint of cynicism and it sounds like your average person's hell: "Ya, it's a microbrewery bar on the canal,

in a gentrified industrial estate in Hackney". There were more fixie bikes chained to the railings than there were railings to chain fixie bikes to, along with baggy sleeveless t-shirts (why? Why, why, why?) and rimmed glasses so thick Clarke Kent would have felt out of place.

But I do Crate a disservice – not something they deserve. It's a beautiful spot along the canal, where the sun catches the water, there are boats moored (that people sit and drink on!) and the inside is decked out industriously and beautifully. Kind of like an art gallery, but a little more soulful. More importantly, with the exception of the moronic trendies drinking white wine at a brewery bar, the locals and staff were friendly, fun and evidently beer lovers. The place was packed for a Wednesday, and not only because Crate's beer is damned fine (especially the kegged IPA) but because their beer fridge is a joy – three kinds of Brooklyn, Racer 5, Flying Dog and Kernel all made appearances and show that the customers know and respect beer almost as much as the owners.

But I knew all that. I was here for the pizza, which I have on a lot of authority (rather than good authority), are amazing. As you can tell from my reviews of Pizza East (in the east) and Pizza East (in the north), I like mine simple, crispy and quick. So at first glance Crate's menu is the stuff of nightmares. They're loaded with toppings – one's that would make a napoli man cross his heart and jump into the nearest wood-fired oven. But the more I read, the more I started salivating. Whoever wrote this menu knows how to combine flavours. I will never, EVER be sold on the laksa chicken ones, but the spiced lamb, pine nuts and spinach was essentially a turkish pizza, and the sweet potato, Stilton and walnut looked ridiculous but tasted incredible.

But we plumped for the caramelised onion, feta, courgette and mozzarella pizza (how good does that sound?!). Crispy almost to a fault, it left us with charcoal coated hands, like we'd been feeling up Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins. It was sweet, then salty, then oh so cheesy. And it went dynamite with our IPAs, where a plainer margherita might have been overpowered. The dough, it has to be said, completely lacked texture other than crispy – and definitely needs a bit more handworking by the chefs . It's needs to be elastic and not so dry, so you get the doughiness and the crispiness – but the toppings were flawless. Pizza is a meal made for sharing, and perfect for eating outside, and eating it al fresco by the canal was exceptionally pleasant, well worth going right to the end of the overground line.

Beer should be drunk fresh – ideally straight from the machinery – and this is as close as you'll get. And Crate have done themselves proud with their pizzas too. They may not be the best pizzas in London, but this might the best place to eat one.

Crate Brewery on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Mien Tay: a big fish

The best Vietnamese on Kingsland Road?

grilled quail mien tay vietnamese kingsland roadFive minutes in to my meal at Mien Tay I thought I was going to be writing a polemic on the virtues of eating with someone allergic to fish. The starting point being you get to eat all the free prawn crackers, the climax being they don't want to try your sea bass.

Sadly, as any long-suffering allergy sufferer's friend will tell you, life just isn't that simple. Especially when your waiter's poor grasp of English means he can't work out whether you're saying you WANT fish in your vegetarian meal, or it will kill you. As a result, despite him eventually checking with the kitchen, my friend ate her meal holding the chopsticks in one hand and her epi pen in the other.

Surviving a meal is one of the main signs that a meal was a success. Kudos Mien Tay. But there were lots of other signs. My incredible quail, for example, bought on the advice of a Metro review that said that "If you only eat one dish this year, make it the starter of grilled quail at Mien Tay". Now, I don't much fancy only eating one meal for a whole year, especially a meal with as little meat on it as quail, but goodness me it was tasty. Hotter than the fires of hell, I barely blinked as my fingers blistered - all I wanted to do was get my teeth into every tiny fold of skin for the gorgeous marinade of chilli, honey, garlic and spices, which I'd coated in the lime and salt that the quail came with. Almost like a quail slammer. it was the tidiest, most delicious plate I've had in a while.

At £6 I could have drained my Saigon beer and left happy then. Perhaps I should have, because comparatively my duck in ginger and spring onions was a disappointment. It had about as much gingery tang as glass of milk, amd the egg fried rice had a more addictive flavour. But my friend's deep-fried tofu with chilli and lemongrass was delicious - crispy, slightly sweet, slightly salty and probably distressingly good for you. And all this came to a measly £33, with no deaths.

Pick the right things, and you might survive. Also, you may find this is the best Vietnamese restaurant you've ever been to.

Mien Tay on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Rock Lobsta Mahiki: a clamity

Geddit? CLAMity. Funny and true

I don't know who they are, but they say do one thing every day that scares you. So yesterday I went to Mahiki. But this was no ordinary Prince Harry-style night out. This was the soft launch of Rock Lobsta (sic), which on their website claims to be where an "east London punk-style lobster bar" (like that's a thing) meets a "world-famous 'Polynesian paradise' Mayfair late night bar" (like that's a full sentence).

Now, if that sounds like SEO cramming, that's because it is. If it sounds like pathetic PR speak too, that's because it is. If it also sounds like one of the most unsuitable restaurant ventures in recent history, that's because it is. The idea of a punk setting foot in Rock Lobsta (sic), let alone Mahiki, is laughable. It's about as punk as Mervyn King.

Rock Lobsta (sic) is on the top floor of Mahiki, which is still two floors below Mayfair. Their small attempts to make the faux-Polynesian vibe edgy fall well short. It's mostly posters in frames and their terrible logo that riffs on the now over-riffed "Never mind the bollocks" logo. The rest of the "punk-style lobster bar" is made up of wicker chairs, bamboo tables, mood lighting and, inexplicably, waitresses in playsuits.

Arriving five minutes early for our booking, we were asked to come back in 15 minutes, which we duly did. We were then sat at the wrong table by our waiter and offered shots by way of apology. Because I doubted he had an aperitif or palate cleanser in mind we politely declined, instead ordering a beer (my friend) and a negroni (made with rum, we're in Polynesia remember!) for myself.

We were both sceptical about the concept and the food, but had agreed that the drinks at least should be pretty good. We reasoned that HRH Prince Harry probably doesn't drink any old shit. Turns out he does. My negroni was so bitter it was like drinking soap, and my friend's bottle-conditioned Beavertown 8-Ball had been turned upside down in the glass, emptying all the yeast right into the beer. Some people like it that way. But very few.

So, having fallen at the first (and lowest) hurdle, we were pleasantly surprised by the starters. Our deep-fried soft shell crab was a little limp, but loaded with lime and chilli flavours and tasted pretty fresh. The deep-fried beer cheese was also moreish, especially with the Ribman's Holy Fuck sauce (sorry mum, it's the brand name). The corndogs, however, were a real delight and the highlight of the whole meal. Crispy fried in a thin batter, soft and sweet inside, and served with a lovely Thousand Island dressing. I would sit in a quiet corner and eat my bodyweight in them if they didn't cost £3.75 each.

For the mains we missed the more interesting sounding raw sea bass, put to one side on the menu like the chef didn't really want anyone to buy it, and got half a lobster and a lobster roll – along with chips and "greens". My friend enjoyed his lobster, but given that it was smaller than his forearm you'd need a whole one (at the cost of £32). The same went for my lobster roll – nice dressing, lovely sweet lobster, nice crunchy pickles, but I demolished it in barely 5 bites, and the terrible, lifeless roll it came in would make a french baker foam at the mouth. Having downed the roll I looked to the sides for sustenance, but the chips would have failed a taste test against McDonald's and the greens were delicious only because they were swimming oil and salt, as if dressed in the deep-fat fryer the crabs came from.

So with a forgettable meal, all I was left to contemplate was the bill, and I couldn't shake the feeling that paying £18.50 for a SANDWICH is actually criminal. To be brutal, the lobster could have been easily replaced with crab at the cost of a little texture, but also the cost of about £6 – not most of a £20 note. 

If I had paid full price (about £120 for three courses and two drinks) I would have been absolutely livid. I'd have been squirting Holy Fuck sauce in people's eyes and breaking Polynesian coconuts on managers' heads. Or I'd have written a strongly worded letter and then never sent it. Probably that actually. Luckily, we paid half price last night, and walked away a little disappointed (and still a bit hungry). 

At the prices you're forced to pay for lobster in this country, it has to be an event. If it can't be on the beach, it should come with Champagne, white table cloths and a snotty waiter, so you can celebrate your "stocks going up" or something. Sadly at Mahiki, you're in a sweat dungeon, and a meal is more likely to be the result of drunken munchies or forceful marketing. 

But the marketing is going to be tough. It's street food opposite the Ritz. It's Dude food in a bankers' bar. I don't know anyone who is going to eat here. I know OF people who will eat there, because there were plenty of suited, square-jawed men there last night, and nothing I say will change their minds – except their first meal there. If you think Mahiki is cool, you'll probably think getting to eat lobster there is cool too, so you'll risk it. To you I say order big on the starters, choose your cocktails wisely, and tip well, because the waiting staff deserve it.

Eating lobster in Mahiki sounds like the kind of thing royalty might do. But for me, eating in a club is never an event – see my review of Aquum in Clapham for proof – and nothing about Rock Lobsta (sic) stirs any excitement in me at all. Except the prices.

Prince Harry, you're welcome to it. And this:

Rock Lobsta on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 8 July 2013

Clockjack Oven: not ready to fly yet

Beautiful rotisserie chicken, with flaws on the side

In Giles Coren's brilliant "How to Eat Out" (yes I giggle every time I say it too) he talks about the things he hates when reviewing restaurants. Given he has the greatest job on earth you have to talk it all with a pinch of salt, but I agree with him on one thing. You should never get too friendly with the manager or owner, because as soon as you do writing a bad review gets much, much harder. Clockjack's manager is without doubt the most approachable, friendly man I have ever met in the restaurant industry, and it hurts to imagine his face dropping as he reads this. So I want to start by making something very, very clear.

Clockjack Oven's rotisserie chicken is exceptional. Truly exceptional. But there are flaws.

Comparisons to Chicken Shop are inevitable, but aren't quite as useful as you'd think. For a start, Clockjack is built for a rollout. It's clean-cut and smooth, and decked out cheaply but tastefully. It has a Wagamama feel to it.

More significantly for the diner, this is properly English-style chicken: salt, pepper, butter - you can even have it with gravy - while Chicken Shop marinate their chicken in paprika and oregano, which would make the addition of gravy a terrifying prospect. There's also a lot more choice at Clockjack – with wings, fried chicken, sandwiches, salads and sides. 

Sadly there was little choice on the beer front and If I could suggest one change to the menu it's update this terrible list. Why Estrella is on there is a mystery, and in the midst of a microbrewery explosion it's mad to ignore it all in favour of mass brewers. Instead we went for wine (a Malbec) and were brought a wine I know for a fact can be bought in Sainsbury's for £7.99. It's a tasty one, but knowing the mark up you're paying (300%) can make it taste a little bitter.

Getting abreast of things
Drink issues aside though, everything chickeny was a delight. Perfect rotisserie, seasoned to within an inch of its life and coated in a lovely golden skin. It wasn't as fall-off-the-bone tender as the Chicken Shop's marinated ones, but the flavour was incredible and the choice of dips (chilli, barbecue, ranch and gravy) was much better. After repeated visits I've come to think that Chicken Shop's sauces were far too runny and a little too strong, while Clockjack's are sticky and satisfying in texture but slightly weaker in the flavour stakes.

The chicken bites had all the crunch of KFC minus the guilt about higher-welfare animals and the hands so oily you could lather up the green room of a bodybuilding contest. I'd imagine my heart still skipped a beat with every swallow though. Still, you don't eat out to lose weight.

The wings were marinaded in a lovely, fruity sauce but were slightly overdone, and then served a little cold. They were still a joy though, and the glaze stuck stubbornly to my fingers even after three lemon wipes – always a good sign.

The only foodie blackspot was the veggie bites. Essentially just crunchy coated sage and onion stuffing balls, they were tasty enough but (roast chicken aside) they could not have been more offensive with the ranch dressing, barbecue sauce and chicken wings. Far better would be a spicy bean or sweet potato-based bite that matches the Deep South leanings of the other sideshow dishes. As it is, they look the part, but taste more like something you'd find on your grandma's 40s dining table, with the Constable-print place mats and the boiled sprouts.

For pudding we plumped for the Baileys truffles with vanilla ice cream – a beautifully simple concept. The manager was delighted by our choice and came over to claim the recipe as his own and offer us a masterclass in making them, which we may well take up. They were excellent. I'm usually dead against alcohol in puddings (trifle being my food nightmare) but I couldn't argue with the lovely flavours and that little kick of alcohol that gets up your nose. And I love arguing.

Clockjack Oven on Urbanspoon   Square Meal