It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Indali Lounge, 50 Baker Street, Marylebone

There are no photos accompanying this review. Indali Lounge on Baker Street is extremely dark. Apologies for that.

Now, a review without photos may well seem ill-judged, like Eric without Ernie, a Big Mac without fries, or Nick without David. Odder even than these split pairs though, is the notion of curry without butter, ghee or cream. Surely fat is one of the most important things in good curry dishes.

The Indali Lounge claims to be the ‘healthiest restaurant in London’. It may very well be, though it should be asked why any restaurant, and especially a curry house, would want such an accolade. After all, I can boil my own lentils.

It wears its healthy credentials incredibly heavily too. Dishes are routinely described as ‘low fat’, while the menu makes a point of highlighting that only a smidgeon of olive or sunflower oil will have been used, and then only when absolutely necessary. To someone who believes food should be tasty first and foremost, this seems like mistaking a negative for a selling point, but I realise others may see things differently.

Anyway, to the food. Most of it was decent enough, though the complimentary amuse bouche, of vegetable soup, failed to inspire. Lean, sprightly poppadum crisps and light fruit chutneys made up for it. Kandari chicken malai tikka was moist and tangy with ginger; lamb sheesh, a little dry. A third starter, of soft shell crab, was full of coconut and mustard flavour, and delicious.

Mains were variable. Mine, a lamb biryani, could have done with more fat. The flavours were all there, but the dish was dry in the extreme. I failed to finish it, in an almost unprecedented dereliction of duty. A rather good lamb rogan josh and a tasteless paneer and pea, with no power in the paneer nor perk in the peas, made up the mains.

Black daal was suitably earthy but not buttery enough (not buttery at all, in fact). Dishoom does this dish far better. Perhaps most bizarre were the naan breads, made of wholemeal flour and oats. Though surprisingly palatable, they would have been better with more fat and less roughage. A crumbly texture doesn’t really work with naan.

The service was patchy, with long waits for a jug of water and difficulties securing drinks orders, but otherwise friendly enough, even if the decision to plonk a laminated testimonial from Channel 4 down on the table midway through the meal seemed eccentric. With mains at between £8.50 and about £13, it’s a little more pricey than it should be, though not extremely so. I enjoyed my meal, though I suspect the company, not the food, was responsible for that. If you’re stuck for options, or stuck with a health freak, you could do much worse. Otherwise, Indali Lounge is to be recommended mainly for its novelty.

Phil Letts’ take: 5/10

Indali Lounge on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

St John Bread and Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, Spitalfields

This is disheartening. St. John Bread and Wine has long been my favourite restaurant in London, and now I’m going to give it a less than glowing review. How disappointing. 

The problem was with the Christmas feasting menu. We were a party of twelve, and so were obliged to choose something for the whole table (bar one guest, who suffers with ‘special’ dietary requirements). We plumped for the goose, at £43 pounds per head for three birdy courses and a sorbet. At that price, it’s not just the goose that’s getting fat.

Now, I know goose isn’t cheap. But when a whole suckling pig would have come in at £27.50 per head normally (+£15 pounds each for the ‘festive’ version, with starter and dessert), and when £43 pounds would buy you about eight dishes on the la carte menu, it’s not unreasonable to expect something pretty bloody spectacular for the price, especially when, almost by definition, these kinds of lunches are also going to yield a pretty high wine spend for the restaurant.* In any other place, the price wouldn't have mattered, but SJBW is justly renowned for astonishing quality AND superb value.

Goose liver pate was fine in every sense apart from the best. Finely pureed and finely spread on a single piece of quite large toast per person, it tasted fine but rather underwhelming, even with little cornichons to garnish. I hadn’t expected full on foie gras d’oie, but a little textural interest wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The next course was rather lovely – confit goose in a salad of bitter leaves, with a tart vinaigrette that punched through the decadence of the crispy bird. Delicious, but there could have been plenty more. 

The main, of roast goose and goose fat mashed potato, was another partial triumph. Pink meat tasted rich and gamey, with a crispy, fatty skin adding a brash veneer. Remarkable, mischievous mash, saturated with fat, would almost certainly kill in large quantities. That’s how I’d like to go, at least. 

I say partial triumph, not because there was anything wrong with what we were given; rather, the looming non-presence of anything green seemed odd. Fat, rich goose and fat, rich mash would have benefited hugely from some slim cavolo nero, say, or sprouts, or peas, or leeks, or broccoli.

We finished with a perky sorbet. I imagine egg-whites gave the sharp lemon ice its delightfully creamy texture. As sorbets go, this was very good, though a sorbet is never really going to provide fireworks. A slight anti-climax, perhaps. 

In most London restaurants, our goose feasting menu would have been an unqualified success. But because of the insanely high standards set by SJBW, this sweet ensemble left a very slightly sour taste. With lots of decent wine, we spent £68 pounds per head.

I’ll certainly return to SJBW – it’s a wonderful restaurant. But I think I’ll avoid the feasting menu in the future, which means no large groups. A shame, since SJBW should be perfect for long lunches with lots of friends.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10 

*The day before we ate, there had been some kind of accident at SJBW’s wine storage facility – £250,000 of wine was lost. Terrible.

St John Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Cantinetta, 162-164 Lower Richmond Road, Putney

Pity the poor folk who live in Putney. With all the worst trappings of complacent suburbia and none of the benefits, it’s a miserable and clumsy nowhere - Kingston without the shopping.* 

On the other hand, it now boasts a very fine restaurant. Cantinetta is the latest in a seemingly endless list of middle-to-high end Italian eateries that have opened in London in the past year or two. After years of fruitless effort, during which Cafe Uno and Bella Pasta passed for Italian restaurants, the English finally seem to be working out how to do it. Even in Putney.

Not that there’s anything particularly English about Cantinetta, beyond its unfortunate location on the Lower Richmond Road (note: this is an extremely long road, and if you look for number 162-164 on Google Maps, it directs you to a main artery about two miles from the restaurant). It’s another Locatelli influenced offering, following hot on the heels of the very-slightly-underwhelming Tinello. Chef Federico Turri is a Locatelli alumnus.

We went for Sunday lunch during the soft opening, meaning the food was half price. I know it’s not particularly good practice to review restaurants during soft openings (they’re designed to let the place iron out any problems before charging full price), but until I can afford not to worry about the prices, I’m going to continue taking advantage of the offers. In any event, the two restaurants I’ve reviewed in this way (Hawksmoor is the other) were both so good as to render the softness of their openings irrelevant.

We shared a light, perky potted rabbit for starter. Served with thick, crunchy bruschette, it struck a beautiful balance between fatty, melting meat and a citrusy salsa verde. 

After that, we went for borlotti bean and mussels soup (me) and squash ravioli with pork ragu (Cute Letts). The soup was rich and warming, with excellent borlotti hovering somewhere between firm and melting. The squash ravioli dazzled, the sweet smoothness of their filling offset by the earthy pork ragu and textural delights of precise pasta: near perfection, and the dish of a very good day. 

Tagliata di manzo (in this case, a huge hunk of ribeye) came with deep fried polenta that looked and felt like Michelin-starred hash browns, and a thick nebbiolo sauce that ended up being slightly too rich for me. A beautiful dish, nonetheless. We added courgette fries (for a change), which were among the best I’ve ever eaten. Again though, Cute Letts picked the pick. Monkfish with globe artichoke and sprightly salsa verde was magnificent, with just enough tang from the salsa to complement the luxurious swimmer. 

However, as Meat Loaf didn’t say, one out of three ain’t bad – I nailed the dessert selection, choosing sebadas filled with pecorino and drenched in honey. Sebadas are a kind of deep fried ravioli, and this dish was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted: warm, sweet and sticky, but with an undertone of frisky cheese to boost the ensemble.

Cute Letts did pretty well too. Her panna cotta was drenched in very nice grappa - a coup for this chubby, creamy dish. 

A nice bottle of Sicilian Borgo Selene worked well for £14.50.

Non-soft opening prices would have seen this lot come in at about £40 per person. For this quality, that’s a serious bargain. The restaurant is airy, with a bar serving booze and tiraditi (little snacks, unavailable when we attended) that is sure to make it a local favourite. If it wasn’t in Putney, I’d be there all the time.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

*I don’t know Putney all that well, so if this assessment is entirely inaccurate, I’m sorry. It just always seems like a place that thinks it’s very posh, sophisticated and smart, contrary to all available evidence. 

Cantinetta on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Supperclubs, trademarks and the London Underground

Many of you reading this will know Ms Marmite Lover. I expect several of you have been to The Underground Restaurant, her Kilburn supper club. I attended before I was a food blogger, and had a memorable day, chiefly because of the sweary biscuits she served. As the self-proclaimed “pioneer of supper clubs in this country,” Ms Marmite Lover is pretty well known. 

The Underground Restaurant launched in January 2009, achieving remarkable success extremely quickly. Supper clubs in London are two-a-penny these days, but Ms Marmite Lover (real name, Kerstin Rodgers) claims to have laid much of the initial groundwork for the current boom. From her home in Kilburn, she puts on dinners, lunches, afternoon teas, themed nights and recently, an Underground market, charging up to £50 pounds for the privilege. While she may not yet be making mega-bucks, it’s clear that what started as part-hobby, part-philosophical statement, is now a brand, generating revenue and a significant media profile for its founder.

Unfortunately for her, success means publicity, and with publicity comes scrutiny. Last week, the Evening Standard ran a story about Transport for London’s challenge to a trademark application for ‘The Underground Restaurant’, filed last year. Ms Marmite Lover confirms that she filed the application, and that TfL have sent her no less than three ‘cease and desist’ letters, demanding that she change the name or shut the restaurant down, on the grounds that she is infringing the company’s ‘Underground’ trademark.

The story met with howls of outrage from the foodie community, some of them justified, many of them not. Despite what some people have claimed, this has absolutely nothing to do with trying to ‘copyright’ the word ‘underground’ (that would be impossible), nor is it accurate to say that TfL has tried to ‘patent’ the word (patents cover inventions, not words). This piece is an attempt to look at the issue slightly more realistically, though I’m not a trademark lawyer, and none of what follows should be taken as legal advice of any sort.

TfL owns a trademark for the word ‘Underground’, registered in Class 43 for food services, restaurant booking services and the like – essentially, it’s the European-approved category for restaurants, catering and so on. This trademark entitles the owner to protection from anyone imitating it, passing off their services as the owner’s, gaining benefit by creating a false association with the existing brand, creating confusion about the origin of services or otherwise diluting the value of the initial mark. 

That said, for a trademark to be usefully enforceable, the owner must normally be able to demonstrate that it is being put to use in the category for which it was registered, and that someone else’s use of it is confusing or damaging in some way. Effectively, if challenged, TfL might be called upon to show that it not only provides some kind of food or restaurant service, but that it is branded with the Underground mark. I asked TfL if they have any such services, but didn’t get a reply.

Now, without going into whether ‘The Underground Restaurant’ actually infringes TfL’s mark – it would require more information than is available to someone not involved in the case – it is fairly clear why TfL are pursuing it. Any large corporation has a responsibility to its stakeholders (even if they are taxpayers) to protect its intellectual property. It’s sound commercial policy to stop people gaining benefit from a brand name that they don’t own. And while Ms Marmite Lover calls TfL’s own trademark “frivolous” (in as far as it covers food), for the moment, the trademark exists.

Does ‘The Underground Restaurant’ gain benefit from a false association with the London Underground? Probably not, but if the question is even worth asking, then it’s probably worthwhile for TfL to investigate it. Does ‘The Underground Restaurant’ create confusion among customers as to the origin of its goods and possibly dilute the TfL brand? Probably not, though Ms Marmite Lover’s house is not far from the Kilburn Underground station, so it’s easy to see why you might ask the question.

The more pertinent question might be whether it’s worth TfL investing money in tackling what is still a pretty small business. Many people would say no - it’s a clear waste of money that TfL could usefully spend on providing a useable transport service. Personally, I have quite a bit of sympathy for that view. But that said, it won’t cost TfL very much to send cease and desist letters, and the company knows that it has deeper pockets than its opponent. It might well be making a sensible calculation that it can nip a potential problem in the bud by throwing its weight around now. It’s not very nice, admittedly, but neither is it illegal. In fact, it’s probably good business.

So given the situation, where does Ms Marmite Lover go from here? Well, she could close down. That’s probably not an option. She could change the name of the restaurant (TfL have apparently suggested ‘Kilburn Underground’, though that doesn’t seem to solve the problem). That seems unlikely. She could wait it out and see whether TfL feels strongly enough to take her to court. The problem is, that could mean ending up in court. Finally, the two parties could reach an agreement.

“I have had reasonable discussions on the phone with TfL's lawyers. They said I'm sure we can come to an arrangement if you use a different font,” Ms Marmite Lover says. “They changed their mind. I'm hoping to come to an agreement with them,”

In all likelihood, they will come to an agreement. It’s in no one’s interests for the case to go to court. And if there’s a slight irony in a proud anti-establishment figure wanting to register a trademark in the first place, then no matter. As Ms Marmite Lover says, she’s “protecting [her] brand.” TfL would say the same, no doubt.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Tiny Robot, 78 Westbourne Grove

It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I’m kind of hungry, and I’m outside. I don’t have much money, but if I did, I’d probably go to The Ledbury instead. They say Saturday night’s alright for fighting. Luckily it’s Friday, which is good for dinner. And while there are many familiar, delicious restaurants around Westbourne Grove, it’s no sacrifice to try a new one. So hold me closer, Tiny Robot, even if your name is silly. 

The first problem is the menu. It’s all well and good having a set of dishes listed under the word ‘Balls’, but it’s a challenge to work out how you’re supposed to choose your meal, given that half the menu costs about £3.50 while several dishes cost upwards of £15. Do you have starters? Lots of small things? A mix? Are the dishes suitable for sharing? We didn’t know. Nobody told us, nobody showed us. We asked the waitress, and apparently it’s normal to order lots of things and share them, giant T-bone steaks at £28 notwithstanding.


We had arancini and a couple of sliders, some whitebait, a rocket salad (or arugula, as the American-language menu would have it), and a piece of giant sausage with lentils.

The arancini were tasty enough, though smaller than you might like. Their spinach and parmesan risotto filling was comforting, while a side of herb aioli added a nice kick. We had one pork and one beef slider (meatballs in little burger buns). Mine, beef with ‘spicy tomato’ sauce, was pretty average, its sauce neither especially spicy nor even particularly tomatoey. Cute Letts' pork slider fared little better with its creamy parmesan topping. Neither of us had the guts to try the special turkey and cranberry option.

Now, I’m a rocket man, and in a salad with shallots and a super-light vinaigrette, it’s an excellent leaf. Our salad was just right, an enchanted moment in an otherwise mediocre ensemble. But even the most rocket man of rocket men might have found the whitebait dish a little odd. I don’t have any particular objection to serving whitebait mixed up with rocket, but in this instance, the whitebait was too soggy and threatened to meld with the leaves at any moment. A disappointing experience only partially offset by some delicious aioli (this time, without herbs). 

But oh, lawdy mama, the giant sausage and lentils were good. A generous slice of cotechino Modena, a lovely, fatty sausage, sat lustily on a bed of lentils, crispy pancetta, carrots and onions. It was marvellous.

For dessert, we shared a baked Alaska, principally because I haven’t eaten one since I was about five, and they’re bloody lovely. This was particularly good, a ‘pieces finally fit’ kind of moment. Fluffy meringue sat atop rich pistachio ice-cream on a bed of boozy panettone. It was far too big for two, and you can’t order it for one, but I didn’t care. Six mouthfuls made me so sugared-up I felt like a wide-eyed wanderer. Otherwise, I’d have certainly finished it. 

The bill came in about £50 for two, including a couple of beers and a glass of wine. Tiny Robot is ok, but you can do a lot better in this area, and I don’t just mean at The Ledbury. Would I go again? Well, I think it’s gonna be a long long time.

Phil Letts’ take: 5/10

p.s. Apologies for the scarcity of photos. It was too dark. The sun had gone down on me.

Tiny Robot on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 November 2010

In praise' markets

Why would anyone need to praise farmers’ markets? It’s not like there are hordes of people queuing up to hurl insults at farmers selling their wares. We love fresh food in this country and we like knowing where it’s from. There’s no argument.

But in these straightened times, you hear the growing sound of tummy grumbles. ‘Farmers’ markets are overpriced,’ goes a popular refrain. ‘The food is hardly locally-sourced if you live in London,’ goes another, ‘and besides, farmers’ markets are full of twats.’

The third point is unarguable, but I’d take issue with the others.

There are certainly some things at your average farmers’ market that are overpriced. Normally, they are those items that have little or nothing to do with a farm. No one needs to spend seven pounds on a jar of hazelnut honey, and pre-made pesto sauces don’t need to cost a fiver. Indeed, much of what you might call the artisan-food trade at farmers’ markets is a horrendous rip-off. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution to that: don’t buy from those producers unless you want to. 

Farmers’ market butchers can seem expensive by comparison with supermarkets, I’ll concede. Certainly, their meat is likely to cost more. Things that are miles nicer than other things tend to. I don’t think £10 for 800 grams of rare-breed skirt steak is too bad (price correct as of two weeks ago). Quite apart from the fact that you’d struggle to find skirt in a supermarket (chortle), this is more than competitive with almost anywhere you could buy it. It was bloody delicious too, even if 'rare-breed' is about the least helpful name for a product I can think of.

Yes, there’s the odd venison kidney for ludicrous amounts of money. If you can get one somewhere else, I suggest you do. Is it locally sourced? That depends what you mean by local. You’re probably not getting your deer from Richmond Park, but neither is your steak from Argentina. I’m happy to know that I know where it’s from, whether that’s Wiltshire or Northumbria.

The trick is to be discerning. Some price comparisons from my most recent visit:

Market eggs (free range) - £1.20 for half a dozen

Supermarket eggs (free range) – £1.63 for half a dozen (free range)

Market cavolo nero (bunch), leeks (five), broccoli (head), celeriac (one), onions (four), herb bundle, beetroot (handful) - £4.80

Supermarket cavolo nero (not in my local), leeks (five), broccoli (head), celeriac (see cavolo nero), onions (four), herb bundle (not really available), beetroot (handful) – about £5, if you buy the cheapest range, and without the missing items

Market apples (massive bag) - £1

Supermarket apples (not so massive bag) - £0.97 for basics

You get the point. The quality is hardly comparable either. 

My local farmers’ market is in Queens Park. I imagine it’s up there with the most expensive in London. I still save money shopping there above my local supermarket, and everything tastes good. It’s better value and similar quality to the Riverford veg box I used to get. It’s better quality and fractionally more expensive than Portobello market. There may be better options in London, but not near where I live, and not with Tesco or Sainsbury’s written above the door.

p.s this is very funny - thanks to The Old Hat Club for sharing

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Hawksmoor, 11 Langley Street, Covent Garden

If I was called Pete, I’d feel even better about Hawksmoor’s remarkable cocktail, Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew. After all, on Sunday at lunchtime I did feel somewhat shaky - a result of the excesses of the night before the night before. I’m also a teeny bit ginger (my facial hair, since you ask, and absolutely NOTHING else). And any brew worthy of the name gets my vote. It’s almost the perfect drink for yours truly, then, even if it is named after the barman who created it. 

Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew is truly the aperitif of gods. Unshaven, hungover gods perhaps, but gods nonetheless. This marvel contains gin, homemade ginger syrup, lemon juice, and a foamy London Pride top. They serve it in a glass with a proper handle too, the better to combat any tremors.

Anyway, Hawksmoor is principally known as a restaurant, so I’ll cease banging on about drinks. It’s famous for steak (and Kimchi burgers, if tweeting bloggers are anything to go by). We took advantage of their soft opening, which meant the food was 50 percent cheaper than it is now - good news for a tightwad.

As a result, we ordered extraordinary quantities of food and spent at least as much as we would have done had there not been a discount and we’d been watching our wallets. I had six Cumbrae rock oysters with sausages. The oysters were drowning in excess water, but otherwise delicious, while the sausages were the perfect fatty accompaniment. At £13 pounds (normally, £10 for oysters, £3 for sausages), these would be fine, but at £6.50, they were spectacular. We also ordered potted mackerel, which was large and tasty. It could probably have done with some more toast, but at £5.50 normally, you can hardly complain about that.

But who cares, really? It’s all about the beef. We went for a prime rib to share, with bearnaise sauce, steamed spinach, beef dripping chips and triple-cooked chips, and a side of bone marrow. You heard.

The beef was remarkable – fatty, beautifully pink and full of flavour, almost crispy on the outside with bags of lovely char taste. Also, there was loads of it – 1.2 kilos to be precise. This was a good thing, though also points to a slight quibble with Hawksmoor, at least during the soft opening.

We sat down for Sunday lunch at 1.30. By then, there were no porterhouse or prime rib cuts left at less than that weight. Between two, 1.2 kg is a bit of a stretch, and it would have been nice if the more popular weights (800g-1kg) were more readily available, especially since at normal prices, 1.2 kg would cost £72. That’s a figure to be reckoned with. I expect this is precisely the sort of thing that the soft opening is designed to identify, so it would be harsh to call it a problem, but I’d have certainly felt priced out of any of the sharing dishes if it had been a normal service – a shame, because the meat was truly brilliant.

At £3, the bone marrow side is laughably cheap – gooey, rich and stupidly moreish. Frankly, I’d have eaten four of five of these if I could. The beef dripping chips were super too – thick-cut and ballsy. Their thrice cooked cousins were slightly reserved by comparison, though still excellent. Spinach worked as a kind of annoying hippy at the meat feast – perfectly pleasant, but only really there to make you feel guilty about everything else.

We washed it all down with a bottle of Gayda (I laughed, but then I’m extremely silly). Punchy and nicely leathery, it was worth the £24 pounds we paid.

Taken on the terms it sets itself, Hawksmoor is more or less flawless. I can’t imagine you’ll ever find better beef in London, and the Seven Dials site looks the part and more. Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew may be the best cocktail I’ve had, though I don’t drink many. I hope to shake him by the hand next time I go. It’s not cheap, but for a memorable meal in Covent Garden, Hawksmoor is a must visit. They are going to clean up.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Camino, 28 Westferry Circus, Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf always seems an odd place. But on a Saturday lunchtime, bereft of its bankers, wankers, lawyers and assorted consultants, it’s quite eerie, like a gold-rush mining town with no more gold.

I’ve always suspected that the typical restaurant customer in this part of London has no great need for food, subsisting instead on cocaine, money and poor people. But were they so inclined, the citizens of planet Goldman could do worse than head to Camino, the newish sister restaurant of a well-liked Kings Cross establishment.

I did, at the restaurant’s invitation and expense, and enjoyed the experience, though it’s fair to say Saturday lunch is probably not the best time to go (I chose the time, so you can blame me). We took advantage of the unusually good October weather and sat out on the waterfront, gazing over the odd modern-old buildings that define much Dockland riverside development.

The menu we were given was for brunch. It contained no starters, and when the waiter suggested we try churros con chocolate (little fried doughnuts with chocolate) ahead of our parrillada mixta (mixed grill), I was slightly bemused. Instead, we had to make do with some horrible olives, covered in lemon juice and paprika, I think. They were not good at all. A glass of Tio Pepe compensated somewhat, but I wasn’t optimistic about the rest of our meal.

Happily, things perked up with the arrival of our main. A huge plate of meat and garlic-smothered piquillo peppers, with a mild blue-cheese sauce, it was priced at a muscular £19.50 per head (minimum two to share). Any quibbles about the cost were more than made up for by the quality however. Rib eye steak was perfectly rare, tender and juicy. Pork sausages were interesting enough, with just a hint of peppery flavour to keep us keen. The morcilla (black pudding) was subtle and rich, with the texture of haggis and a fatty, ferrous flavour that I really loved. Some nicely cooked chicken was fine, but lacking zing. 

Best of all was the Iberico black pig, served very rare indeed, and quite superb. Unaccustomed to deliberately rare pork, I was surprised and delighted by the fleshy texture of the meat, somewhere between raw tuna and rare steak. Sprinkled with large chunks of rock salt, it was full of sweetness and meaty flavour. A real discovery. The piquillo peppers were good too, though the salad leaves perched on the corner of the plate were disappointingly meagre and poorly dressed. The ensemble would have been great accompanied by potatoes. There were none on the brunch menu, though they are available normally. They should probably just serve them with the meat. 

Our excellent waiter recommended a glass of Quinta El Refugio to accompany the grill. It was miles better than a £21 pounds-per-bottle wine should be, all vanilla notes and musky aftertaste. 

We followed this with cheese – a ragbag of decent manchego and disappointing non-descriptness, accompanied by a rather nice thick strawberry jam. One of the cheeses tasted simply of Edam; another looked cracked and tough, like it had been cut earlier in the day and left out too long. But, I suppose, if you’re going to serve mediocre cheese, then you might as well do so alongside Upita de Los Reyes biscuits. These were so good I took the wrapping home with me and am now scouring London to find more. Caraway, salt and caramel played on the tongue to create layers of flavours that expanded and retreated in every mouthful. The datey, pruney glass of Pedro Ximenez ‘El Candado’that we drank with it probably helped too. At £4.50 a pop, this is another bargain. 

We finished with decent coffee and an aggressive, anis-flavoured Basque liqueur called Patxaran. Very nice.

Camino does lots of things extremely well (including pictures of Penelope Cruz in the men’s loo). The food ran the gamut from poor to truly excellent, while the wine was wonderful and affordable. I imagine it will do very well in Canary Wharf, because it’s a cut above crappy chains like Giraffe, but not so fancy as to deter people who like that kind of place. You can eat and drink well for under £35 pounds per head. And if nothing else, there's the Iberico black pig and those gorgeous biscuits.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10

Camino on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Little Chef, Popham, A303

Does anyone remember The Happy Eater? There used to be one on the way to Gloucester from London – I don’t know exactly where, because I was about eight the last time I went. We used to visit on the way to see my granny. Essentially, it was a means of stopping sibling fighting using pancakes and maple syrup. The theory, I assume, was that we wouldn’t be too fractious on arrival if we had a small sugar hangover. I can’t remember if it worked, and I imagine the food was pretty foul, but I loved those stops nonetheless.

In the late eighties, anywhere that wasn’t home felt like a destination restaurant, at least to the young Master Letts. Roadside eateries were even better. The Harvester was a bit of a treat; McDonalds, an impossible dream. For some reason, we didn’t go to The Little Chef. I felt sore about it at the time, I think. Something about that smart red frontage and the real-chef shape made it look almost classy. Better than Wimpy, at any rate.

The Little Chef at Popham evokes an odd nostalgia – for childhood experiences I don’t think I had. But what with Heston Blumenthal’s well-publicised battles to turn the ailing chain around, and given that it’s conveniently located en route to Devon, it made sense to pop in to Popham for breakfast.

Why is it called the Olympic breakfast, I wonder? I suppose I could research it and find out, but I prefer to think that it has something to do with Daley Thompson.

In any event, three of us ordered it. Cute Letts went for a cheesy omelette. Four very un-eighties coffees and a genuinely freshly-squeezed orange juice completed the tab.  The cheesy omelette was phenomenally cheesy, extremely tasty and perfectly cooked. £6.35 prices it above your local greasy spoon, but it seemed like good value.

The rather fancy menu describes the Olympic breakfast thus: Two Little Chef outdoor bred British pork sausages, two rashers of Wiltshire cured outdoor reared back bacon, two griddled free-range eggs, a slice of Ramsay of Carluke black pudding and a roasted field mushroom with either Heinz baked beans or a chargrilled tomato. Served with a slice of toasted bloomer bread and butter.


Sounds great, don’t it? Well frankly, it was. The mushroom was brilliant (cooked in thyme infused oil, no less). The black pudding was brilliant. The sausages were small, but porky and brilliant. The eggs were brilliant. The bacon was ok. The tomato was also ok. For £7.25, this was just the right combination of fancy-pants pretentious fry-up and actual, proper breakfast.

The Little Chef in Popham has confirmed that everything I thought I was missing as a child, I was, in fact, missing. There is blue sky painted on the ceiling, for goodness’ sake! There are stupid little fake robins that look over you as you eat! The bathroom talks to you! That’s too many exclamation marks!

I doubt I’ll go to another one, as I suspect they’re not all like this, nor ever shall be. I’ll stick to the memories, I think.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Hix Restaurant & Champagne Bar, Selfridges, Oxford Street

Everybody loves Mark Hix. They say you can’t please all the people all the time, but with Hix Oyster & Chop House, Hix Soho and Hix Oyster & Fish House, he’s had a pretty good go. Even his cookbooks garner near-universal praise. You might think, therefore, that taking over the champagne bar and restaurant in Selfridges would be a breeze.

It certainly looks that way at 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening. Perhaps surprisingly, there are only about 10 people in the restaurant, but then it is in an odd part of a not-as-nice-as-it-thinks-it-is department store. On the plus side, a relatively empty restaurant should mean a pretty flawless service. And on the even more plus side, I’m not paying; Hix Selfridges is priced at the intimidating end of quite expensive.

We start with some aperitifs – I go for the legendary Hix Fix, its champagne and cider brandy providing a suitably degenerate beginning to the evening.

A starter of ‘De Beauvoir smoked salmon’ benefits from the famous Hix cure. It’s really wonderful – sweet and woody, thickly sliced and generously portioned. By comparison, my focaccia with avocado, anchovies and parmesan is pedestrian. Best of the starters is whipped squash with fried halloumi. It’s a textural delight, beautifully seasoned and further enhanced by the rather nice Gavi we’re drinking.  

Mains are good too. My steak tartare does its job and looks the part, though the accompanying toast adds little to the dish. I add a side of chips. These, cooked in beef dripping, are clearly very bad for the heart, but I like to think they’re rather better for the soul. They certainly make me feel warm and fuzzy.

My mother in law (who’s paying) orders monkfish and Red Sea prawn curry. It’s very nice without being quite as exciting as it sounds. And for £19.75 (a sneaky price if ever there was one), there should probably be more of it.

Cute Letts has a salt beef and green split pea salad. A wise man once said ‘you don’t win friends with salad’, but in this case, he would have been wrong. This is light and flavoursome, if slightly short of pickley notes to balance the beef.

Her good choices continue with dessert. Seasonal fruits with blackcurrant sorbet are seriously delicious. ‘My ideal dessert,’ she says. I order what I’d previously assumed took that particular honour: chocolate pudding and honeycomb ice cream. I contemplate the ‘shipwreck tart’, but I don’t know what it is and nor, apparently, does the waitress. ‘It’s got nuts in’ is the most I can get out of her. The chocolate pudding is ok, but without the bitterness that I love. Sickly-sweet honeycomb ice cream hardly helps matters. I can’t finish the dish, and it’s not often I say that.  Hix fix jelly is our table’s final choice, and it’s excellent.

Hix at Selfridges serves good food, and would make a decent place to have lunch if you find yourself lost in the shop. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see the appeal. It’s not good enough to be a destination restaurant in its own right, and too expensive to be a value alternative to anything (our bill came to £188 for three). There is also a sense that everything is slightly too easy, slightly phoned-in, even. You’d be better off, in both senses, going to Hix Soho. 

Phil Lett’s take: 6/10 

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