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, 20 August 2010

Byron, Westfield

Fifteen years ago, shopping centres in England were simple. You knew where you stood. They were largely unpleasant places, grim and breezeblocked, full of uninspiring shops like British Home Stores and Mad House. As for the food, well, these were not places you’d voluntarily eat. Overpriced coffee and sandwich counters dominated, with the occasional McDonald’s thrown in for good measure. Brent Cross is still like that. So is the Bentall Centre.

Westfield is a little bit different. Yes, it’s still a shopping centre. And yes, despite pretensions to the contrary, it’s still pretty ugly. But here’s a dirty little secret: Westfield is a good place to eat. You have to be discerning, but anywhere with a branch of Wahaca must have something going for it.

The same could be said about Byron. Clearly, I’ve rather missed the boat on reviewing this in a timely fashion, but you know, that’s the beauty of being your own editor.

Now, I could start by taking you through the menu. But what would be the point? At Byron, you eat burgers. Burgers and fried things. Burgers and fried things and milkshakes with malt in. I had a Byron burger – a medium rare beef patty, crispy, dry-cured bacon, cheddar, salady bits and ‘Byron sauce’, in a bun. I’m not sure what exactly is in Byron sauce, but it’s not a million miles from the burger sauce you sometimes have with kebabs. And that’s nice, isn’t it?

The burger was delectably cooked, juicy and flavourful. People go overboard about it, but basically, it’s very good: a big step up from TGI Fridays or Hard Rock, but perhaps not quite in the same league as Hawksmoor and the like. At £8.25 without fries and what not, it’s about right.

We opted for four different fried things. Normal French fries were good, thin and salty; home-made, skin-on chips were fine but nothing more. In contrast, the courgette fries were something of a revelation. Covered in a polenta batter, they tasted as if a Japanese tempura expert had moved to somewhere really unhealthy in the south of the US, and all the better for that. The onion rings were even more delicious: crunchy, light and extraordinarily bad for you, but in a good way. The pools of oil left at the bottom of the basket felt like a kind of endorsement, congratulating the customer on having finished such a fatty Trojan horse.

My accompanying vanilla milkshake was disturbingly good. The balance of ice-cream, malty flavour and vanilla was just right, and my word, they give you a lot of it for £3.75. Highly recommended.

I’m told that Byron is so-called because it means ‘of the cow shed’ in Old English. My etymological knowledge (and that of the Oxford English Dictionary) doesn’t stretch to being able to verify the claim, but it’s terrific nonetheless. I must say though, I was slightly disappointed it’s nothing to do with Lord Byron. I’m reminded of his lines from Childe Harold:

“;there is a fire
And motion of the soul, which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the fitting medium of desire;”

Replace ‘fire and motion of the soul’ with ‘beef’, and you have the Byron hamburger experience. Sort of.

Phil Letts' take: 7/10

Byron on Urbanspoon

Monday, 16 August 2010

About Thyme, 82 Wilton Road, Victoria

Restaurants on Wilton Road in Victoria are like busses: you wait forever to go to one, and then you go to two in a week. Ok, so they’re not exactly like busses.

About Thyme is surely one of the worst-named restaurants in the country. Indeed, I’m struggling to think even of fictional eateries with worse names: Catherine of Tarragon perhaps, or Sage Advice. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a pun. Pitta the Great was a decent kebab shop; Sam & Ella’s does a fine fried breakfast. It’s more that when a restaurant is aiming for real quality in its food, the pun makes it seem worse, especially when it’s as bad a pun as About Thyme.

Anyway, I digress. About Thyme, despite its name, is a delight. From the moment you enter this odd, purple-fronted world, you could be in Spain. Or at least, you could be in not-England. Victoria fades from memory; Iberia floods into view. This is what’s known as a good thing.

The menu (which varies depending on what is available from the market) is a parade of Mediterranean classics, from lambs’ kidneys cooked in sherry, to carpaccio, via lots and lots of black pudding and garlic. The night we visited, there were a couple of rather interesting specials as well (though not so special that they won’t be on the menu at some point in the future). I had them both.

For starters, little elvers, served in a hot clay pot filled with oil and garlic. To my shame, this was the first time I’ve eaten the tiny wrigglers. They were fantastic, combining the textural hit of an extremely delicate linguine with a juicy kick that recalled good squid. And if the flavour was slightly overpowered by the sweet garlic, well, that’s not the end of the world. At £9.50, I’d certainly have it again.

We were a group of four, but only two people had starters – a disgrace, I know. Sautéed tiger prawns with Piri Piri sauce were nicely cooked and as they should be (i.e. garlicky and hot), while a decent bottle of Chenin Blanc did its job for 24 pounds.

For mains, two out of four went for Dover Sole. It was impeccably cooked, beautifully served on the bone, and bluntly accompanied by a burnt butter sauce with capers and lemon. In short, it was exactly what you want in a Dover Sole, and at £24.50, no more expensive than you’d get it in most places in London, though it was still the priciest item on the menu.
But the real star of the show was the suckling pig. It’s one of those dishes that I always order when I see it, partly because you never know when you’ll see it again, but mainly because I’m very, very greedy. The other member of our group took the same view (yes, I know, it’s not good form for a group of four to only eat two different mains). The pig was sweet (that word again), its flesh gooey and its skin that special kind of crispy/chewy that you only really get from suckling pig. From a food miles-perspective, it was naughty - the little piggies are flown over from Spain. That aside, it was pretty much ideal, offset with black pudding, crispy roast potatoes, spinach and piquillo peppers. A robust Malbec did it no harm either.
Alas, I had no room for dessert. A shame. But the coffee was cracking.

Price-wise, About Thyme is at the top end of the middle – £45 pounds or so per head for two courses and half a bottle of wine. It’s worth it, and if you’re feeling wallet-light, you could do it for about ten pounds less at a stretch. But why would you want to do that when you can have elvers followed by suckling pig?
Phil Letts' take: 7/10

About Thyme on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Rodizio Preto, 72 Wilton Road, Victoria

It’s the cry of the frustrated chaetophobe: you can’t get a good Brazilian in London. More justifiably (and truthfully), it's also a lament of food writers.

Where I live in North West London, that’s not quite fair. There are plenty of decent Brazilian butchers in Kensal Rise, Harlesden and Willesden, and even the odd nice cafe.

That said, there’s certainly a gap in the market. And it’s meat-shaped. So it was with some interest that I went to Rodizio Preto in Pimlico. Ten hungry men is likely to be a challenge for any restaurant, but especially one that bills itself as an ‘all-you-can-eat’ churrascaria.

Things began ominously. There’s a knack to all-you-can-eat: don’t waste your time on too much of the peripheral stuff. Avoiding carbohydrates early on is a must, and here, was something of a challenge. The salad bar was laden with tasty potato salads and rice dishes, on top of indulgent deep fried plantain and cheesy, melty, breadcrumbed samosas. Hot Feijoada-type stew meant that many of us had eaten a fairly substantial meal before the meat proper even started, though, it must be said, with mixed reports from the table on quality. Nevermind – the house red was cheap and very cheerful, and there was a humdinger of a chilli sauce.

So, to the meat. For those who like pointless games with their food or enjoy macho tests of eating stamina, the little green and red disk is a godsend. If the green side faces up, it means you’d like more meat. If though, you turn it over to the red side, that means you’re taking a break. Or you’ve quit. Loser.

First up was rump steak, nicely rare, very well-seasoned and really pretty good. This is the restaurant’s go-to dish. It reappeared three or four times during the meal, and was always welcome, sliced from its lovely skewer, kebab-stylee.

Chicken wrapped in bacon came next. It was ok, but a little dry and very salty. Salty sausages and salty ham followed, then brisket (I think) and chicken thighs. The brisket was good and fat flavoured. The thighs had a great barbecue tang. The ham was, you know, ham. At this point, I was filling up nicely, but it would be a stretch to say I’d eaten all I could.

While everything was decent enough, little stood out. But then the chicken hearts, and then the sirloin. These were the best dishes of the day. The hearts had a wonderful, popping texture and a sharp marinade that nicely offset the richness of the meat. The sirloin was very rare indeed, with a fatty rim that was slightly crunchy on the outside and very beefy in the middle - super. Again, we were treated to several repeat performances.

By this stage, the wine had been flowing like water for a couple of hours, slightly impairing the judgment of all concerned. So when I say it felt like the meat slowed down, that all-you-can-eat didn’t really mean all-you-can-eat, I may very well be wrong. Even if there was an attempt to rein in our consumption, it’s fair to say that the restaurant gave us excellent value for money.

The meat and salad came to £20.95 per head, and even with an all-you-can-drink approach to the wine, the total bill was £35 each including service. Rodizio Preto is not subtle or sophisticated, but it is fun. You can certainly get better meat in London, but you’d be pushed to find it in these quantities for an equivalent price.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10

Preto on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Picture this

As you may have gathered from looking at the other offerings on the site, I’m no photography expert. It’s not that I object to them exactly. There is no spiritual reason for my dislike, I don’t think that photographs can steal a soul, and I’m not worried by having photos of me available for public view.

No, my main difficulty when it comes to photos is the taking of them. There’s nothing more effective at ruining a nice occasion than someone taking a photograph. Even on my wedding day, which was, to use an old but accurate cliché, the happiest day of my life, the reception had to take 15-20 minutes off while we ran around being photographed, pulling various guests in and out of frame, smiling and smiling again, and generally causing everyone to miss valuable canapé time. Yes, we now have an album, but it’s an album with lots of posed photos in it.

Holidays are another bugbear. I never willingly look at photos from a holiday I’ve been on, principally because there are normally none to look at. I know I sound like a miserable git, but I’ve never understood why someone might say, climb a high mountain, get to the top, and during the extraordinary moment of exhilaration that accompanies the achievement, decide that the best thing to do is take a photo. Just remember it.

You can see where this is leading. I do understand that there’s a good reason for photographing food for a food blog. I’m not a complete idiot. But if you’re not sucking PR teat, then your meals out tend to be occasions for you and friends/family/dates/lovers to enjoy each other’s company while tucking in to something unholy and delicious. There’s etiquette to these situations, there are rules: listen to others at your table, talk to them, discuss your food by all means, and enjoy yourself. It’s simple.

Taking photos of the food before you’ve begun to eat should, in any right-thinking society, be anathema. It’s not going to look any better in the photo, and if you need it to jog your memory, then you’re drinking too much, or the meal is no good anyway. Anyway, photographing food is a sure-fire way to let a restaurant know you’re reviewing it.

But what about your audience? Well, the audience question is pretty much hypothetical for me at the moment, but in principle, there are some exceptions. I’ll concede that if you’re running a food blog, and you review restaurants, it makes sense to put some photos of the food up on the website. Discretion is surely key.

As a rule, if I’m getting out of my chair to take a photo, then I’ve missed the point, and possibly made everyone else at the table feel uncomfortable. What’s more, I’ve fundamentally compromised my enjoyment of the meal, which will no doubt be reflected, even subconsciously, in my review. In short, it’s rude to the restaurant and it’s rude to the other guests.

For me, if it comes to a choice between being rude to people I don’t want to be rude to, and having slightly worse photos than I might on the website, then there’s really no choice at all. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.