Thursday, 25 April 2013

Polpo: octopricey

A great night, but Polpo's not a great restaurant

Back when i was trying (failing) to become a music journalist I did a rather cringing stint at the brilliant, a music website for people with discerning but "acquired" music taste. I turned up all fresh faced, eager to impress, with a list of bands that the great John Doran needed to hear.

It turns out he had heard of all of them, and proceeded to explain why each of them were "absolute shite". John and I didn't agree on a thing, but he taught me the most important lesson any critic, or indeed person, can ever learn.

"Most things you review are going to be average."

So if you use that as base for reviewing restaurants you will walk out a much happier man, whatever the experience. If it was crap, you can rightly vent; if it was brilliant, you are sated and delighted; if it was average, you can say "That reminded me of Polpo", and then smile.

The man who founded Polpo is an ex-Ivy man and it shows. He knows how to create a mystique, an identity. More than ever, restaurants are about restaurateurs not chefs, about atmosphere not food. Polpo is a testament to that. The bar downstairs where we waited for our table had loud trendy music, a tattooed barmaid who makes mean and alcoholic cocktails and the walls are slowly, artfully falling down. They told us we'd have to wait 45 minutes for a table, then found one after 20 - somehow managing to make us grateful.

They sat us so close to our fellow diners we were bumping elbows and poured our (very nice) wine into tiny little tumblers. The menu is simple, so simple you're not quite sure what you're ordering. I was also bemused by the fact that my pizzette cost "7.5". What currency was never made clear, nor how I could halve it, short of biting a coin in half. In the end they charged us £7.50 - which seemed a bit steep given the size.

Anyway, our Fiorentina pizzette was absolutely delicious, and we also ordered a slightly bland but nonetheless enjoyable mackerel tartare (how you make raw mackerel bland is beyond me, so props to the chef), some very moreish spinach and ricotta balls and slices of lovely oily focaccia. Sadly the dish I was most looking forward to, the ham hock, as salty as licking Lee Evan's face and almost inedible. You shouldn't need to season a  stew around ham hock, let alone with a whole brick of salt – although at least that explains why the cheapest cut on a pig somehow cost £9.

Still, I was so stuffed the better half and I decided to share a pudding. And it was a damned bit of luck we did, given that the nutella pizzette - which we ordered despite the carb fest of the mains and more out of curiosity than hunger - was bigger than the plate. It was also literally buried (and I write this with a great big smile on my face) with nutella, nuts and I think popcorn, but it was never too clear. Anyway, it was the first true bit of invention and, like all good inventions, filled a gap you didn't even know existed. Like a new lover you never knew you were missing.

So it seems that Polpo is a great pizza restaurant and a fun bar, where good food doesn't seem to be the focus. Not quite the Venetian Bacaro they were aiming for. The problem is that at £80 for two, it's not quite the humble, community restaurant Bacaros are meant to be. I'm sure the owner would point to Soho rents rather than any greed on his part. But then my answer would be don't make your community in the W1 postcode.

The fat man claps his hand, but unusually he's not really sure why.
Polpo on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Sun-soaked dining in London

The best pub gardens with food in London

"Sun's out guns out" my horrid, horrid university friends used to say. And while they threw rugby balls at each other and laughed about penises (to be fair I did that too) I got the barbecue going, or insisted we went somewhere other than Wetherspoon's for a summery dinner – I grew tired of crying children, tramp stamped young mums and wasps trapped in pint glasses. So here are my favourite pub gardens with food, more of the of the craft beer and leafy corners persuasion. They are all just beautiful places to be in the summer.

The Stag (NW3) >>>
My local and a really special place to be on a summer evening. Lots of seating, sun all evening, heaters when it goes cold, and live acoustic music on Sunday afternoon. The food’s great all year around, but in the summer they get a barbecue grill going and produce trashy pulled pork, burgers and such. It also has 50 varieties of beer in the fridge, so settle in for a long one ladz.

The Avalon, south London (SW12)
I only went there once, and it was busy as hell, but the food looked great and the outside was buzzy, beautiful, and large enough to hold a good few parties. The inside is also large enough to host the Proms, so if (when) it starts raining, everyone has somewhere to go. Give it a shot if you happen by some terrible accident to end up south of the river.

<<< Narrow boat (N1)
Much more a restaurant than a pub despite appearances, if you can bag a spot on the balcony you’ll have sun, a canal and a lovely atmosphere. The food is decent gastro-pub stuff with a bit more thought than you might expect. If you just fancy a nice pint (it’s Youngs so pretty good beer), you can get plastic glasses and take it down to the water or further to the lock.

Spaniards Inn (NW3)
Bit of a way from anywhere, but if you’ve got a bike or fancy an adventure across Hampstead Heath on a summer afternoon, this is well worth the trip. Food’s exactly what you’ll be wanting – pies, burgers, butternut squash salads (becoming omnipresent on pub menus) and the like – all changing daily. A lovely outside and as far from London as you can feel in zone 2.

Albion, Islington (N1)
A truly gorgeous old pub in the middle of Islington’s richest area. The food’s good and well priced despite the occasional gastro-pub nonsense (triple-cooked chips) , but it’s the lovely garden that’s going to make you love it. You’ll need to book on a weekend or nice evening though – despite the Albion’s weird location it’s hardly a hidden gem.

Counter café (E3) >>>
On paper it doesn’t work – a floating astroturf coated barge attached to a very decent café with an event better brunch menu. But it feels undiscovered and special, does great breakfasts and overlooks the Olympic Stadium. Bonkers but beautiful. 

Garden Gate (NW3)
Another Hampstead corker. Run by Mitchells & Butler with their inspired it’s-freehold-but-it’s-not vibe, it has great great bar selections, a picky and tasty food menu and a lovely, haphazard outside area, littered with old garden furniture and statues. Perfect for a long afternoon of ale and Scrabble with friends.

The Chequers (RH17)
Not in London, but a brilliant day’s ride for cyclists or a quick train journey for a romantic night away. It’s got great food, great wine, lovely rooms and a relaxing garden outback, overlooking rolling fields all the way back to London’s suburbs. It’s also 20 minutes drive from Brighton, so makes a lovely country stop if you want to make a day trip there.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Yum Bun: things get steamy

Buns and lunch, my two favourite things

Forget what the health experts say. Breakfast isn't the most important meal of the day (it's not even the second most important). What's the meal we look forward to most? It's lunch isn't it. Stuck at our desks we long for it, and when it's over we mourn it all the way until dinner. It's a comma in our day, a fire escape in a tunnel, a love letter amongst bills in the morning post.

It's 9.30 at night, dinner's barely swallowed and I'm already planning tomorrow's lunch - that joyous moment when I down tools with one thing on my mind – something hearty, tasty and most importantly CARBY.

So listen up people like me, what if I told you that there is a place in Old Street where, for just £7.50, you can get an Asian salad, chicken soup, two gyozas and two steamed buns. I first discovered them during an otherwise disappointing meal at Shoryu in Piccadilly. Since then my obsession with these beautiful things has grown to reach boiling point recently (literally, I have bought bamboo steamers). I sometimes wake up gnawing at imaginary buns. While writing this I keep getting distracted by my own picture. That soft, doughy texture that's still light as anything; the crunch of the veg next to it; the spicy, sweet fillings and the meaty stuff you cram in them.

Yum Bun just by Old Street gets it all right with their Bento Box, making soft steamed taco shapes (known as gua bao in Taiwan) they can not only cram but overfill completely without making them tough to eat. They ram it with pork, chicken or salmon, then coat it all in spicy, sweet sauces, before letting you add the chilli sauce – which I can't recommend you do more. I got quite a lot of gristle in my pork but I didn't care. I chewed right through the awkwardness because the idea of stopping didn't even occur to me. True, the gyozas were dry, but they still put a big slobbery smile on your face. There was even a token but tasty salad just to convince you that you're doing your body good. You might be, but who cares: you're doing your soul good.

And that's why I love lunch.

Yum Bun on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

La Cage Imaginaire: love is in the air...

...but not in the food.

Pretty much the last word you expect to write while reviewing a Hampstead French restaurant is "overcooked". Sadly at La Cage Imaginaire, which once translated sounds more like a sex club than a tiny bistro, it is the most defining word.

On the surface it ticks all the "a bit effing French" boxes. It's a quaint little dining room converted from a Georgian terraced house right in the heart of Hampstead. It serves foie gras and crème brulee, and the waitresses all walk about with their nose in the air and probably call us Ros Bifs when our backs are turned. But I loved all that (except the foie gras, which is incredibly cruel and usually tastes like regurgitated pate) and the service was excellent.

So, boxes ticked, we settled in with a lovely bottle of "rouge" hoping to live the cliché. So really I shouldn't have chosen the scallops with chorizo – a famously Spanish sausage. And sadly they don't seem to know it's precious qualities. When you fry chorizo the most magical thing happens. All that gorgeous oil comes oozing out, coating everything in a bright red dye that just screams with flavour. With the sweet, sauteed scallops it should be incredible, lightened with some lemony rocket. Sadly they grilled the chorizo, letting all that flavour drain away, and then must have slow-cooked the scallops in a water bath. No crust, no oil, no bite - just wet scallop with (by now cold) dry chorizo. My misery was only compounded by the fact that my friend's onion soup (a dish I hate) was not only pretty good, but topped with giant croutons and gruyere cheese.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had duck coming. Duck with figs and raisins and mash. How could that go wrong in a Frenchman's hand? Well he overcooks it, that's how – until it's the colour of mud, no longer that glorious blushing pink and leather. If it weren't for the creamy mash and divine fig sauce that it came with, I would have branded it a complete disaster. Meanwhile, my partner's sweet potato and goat's cheese tower was simple and perfect, leaving me to suffer the familiar pang of food envy for a second course.

And then a third as my date tucked into a giant, deliciously smooth creme brulee, while I tussled with...well I don't actually remember, but isn't that the most damning indictment of them all?

I wanted to love La Cage Imaginaire, and while I was there I did (except during the starter). It's perfect for a date - cosy, charming, friendly, small and slightly stuffy - but the truth is it was like a bad relationship. You cling on and make excuses until the end when, suddenly, you realise they were wrong all along. 

But now I feel guilty, because somehow I walked out of that place thoroughly sated and delighted with my night's work. Aside from the food my night was perfect and you can't get away with that statement very often. Perhaps it's true that you can dine out on good wine and great company.

La Cage Imaginaire on Urbanspoon   Square Meal