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