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.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Polpetto, Upstairs at the French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho

London foodieland can be a pretty competitive place. People are fond of one-upmanship: ‘I know this great place in Dalston, it's like a pan-Asian fusion, but with a great respect for local producers and the farm-to-plate journey’ or ‘you have to try the semolina ravioli at x, they challenge your conception of what pasta is capable of’. It’s like American Psycho, but not American. Secretly, I quite like this kind of thing. It’s good to be in the know, and, on the slightly less psychotic side, it’s gratifying to give someone a recommendation for somewhere you know they’ll love.

I always felt like I had a head start on the more assertive of these bragging types...I could do it for a fair bit of Italy. ‘There’s this great little pizza place I know down the road from Santo Spirito in Florence,’ and ‘well of course, in Gallipoli, the sea urchins are so fresh, they’re literally still urchining when you eat them’ or ‘Matera is certainly of archaeological and historical import, but its culinary traditions demand attention too.’

Unfortunately, Polpetto has rather scuppered that. It’s the kind of place you wish you knew in Italy, but barring (I assume) a handful of places in the Veneto, doesn’t really exist, at least not in my experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a restaurant that better deserves the introduction ‘I know this great little place.’

Cosily lit with flickering candles, it squeezes (really) 28 people into a space not much bigger than my living room. The food is mostly for sharing – small plates, tiny plates, and the occasional main-sized plate. We began with a couple of duck and porcini meatballs and some melanzane parmigiano, but stuff tends to arrive more or less when it’s ready. The meatballs were finely flavoured, the rich duck taste preparing the ground for a porcini kick that lingered for sometime afterwards. The melanzane was oil-soaked, cheeky and delicious.

But it got better. Next up was a stunning pork shoulder and pepper pizzetta, on which fatty cured shoulder fought to assert itself against the hot peppers, eventually resolving the whole into something that was both indulgent and kick-ass. Lentils and burrata were salty, but in a good way. I love it when lentils are cooked to that stage that allows you to suck them through your teeth, enjoying all the salty, herby juice while the little pulses struggle to maintain their integrity. I realise I sound like some kind of deviant, but these were brilliant.

Soft-shell crab in parmesan batter was nice too, though the accompanying fennel was the real star of the dish. The crab was pretty standard, if truth be told, if you can have standard soft-shell crab. Pigeon saltimbocca was ambitious, beautifully pink and with some rustic sagey oomph about it.

In contrast, stracchino (cheese), fennel salami and fig bruschetta was mildly disappointing. The bread was burnt-tasting and greasy, the figs were fine but not spectacular, and the salami, while generously proportioned, was nothing to write home about. This was the only real disappointment of the evening.

Next we had a go at some polpette (meatballs - not polpetti, which are little octopi). This was comfort food for grown-ups, with an excellent tomato sauce and lots of fennel in amongst its pork. It was a highlight, particularly when accompanied by beautifully crispy zucchini fries - ideal for mopping up extra sauce.

Finally on the savoury front, we enjoyed cuttlefish with gremolata (roughly, lemon, parsley and garlic). The cuttlefish was great, giving and tasty, while the strong lemon flavour really pushed the dish up a notch. Another triumph.

Desserts were pretty good too. A flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake was very naughty indeed; baked peaches in thyme and cream felt positively healthy by comparison.

We pushed the boat out on drinks. At £27, a bottle of prosecco was slightly regrettable. 500ml carafes of Barbera at £10 each were much better. Four of us paid about £30 pounds each. Were it not for the prosecco, it would have been even better on the pocket.

Polpetto is a fine restaurant. It’s horrifically trendy at the moment and full of people like me – not necessarily a good thing. With a no-booking policy, that means you need to be pretty organised and pretty patient, though early on a Tuesday night, there was no wait to speak of. Once the fervour has died down, I’m hopeful that it will become a Soho institution, one of those ‘little places’ that you return to time and again. I’ll certainly be back soon.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden

Those of you who are familiar with this blog (all 14 of you) will have read about my curry-love before. You may also be familiar with my rather disorganised approach to choosing when and which restaurants to review. I realise therefore, that you’ll almost certainly have already read several reviews of Dishoom, the new(ish) Bombay cafe-style restaurant on St Martin’s Lane.

However, if pornography has taught us anything, it’s that there is always a market for variations on a theme. I hadn’t been to Dishoom when others were reviewing it, but I’ve been now.

The all-day menu at Dishoom is intriguing, encompassing breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Its Indian classics, such as Sheekh kebab, biryani and daal, sit playfully alongside some less conventional Anglo-Indian items, like Desi fish fingers, sausage naan roll, chilli cheese toast and porridge.

We arrived at 8.30 on a Saturday evening. There’s no booking, but we were given a table for five within minutes – a refreshing change from certain other London restaurants with no-booking policies. The restaurant was full, but it didn’t feel cramped, the faux art deco decor creating an illusion of space and style similar to what you find in The Wolesley, though not as posh. Dishoom’s a nice looking place, with a nice atmosphere, nice staff, and for the most part, nice food.

It’s one of those places that serves you your food as it’s ready, in no particular order. This increasingly trendy idea is a fairly crap one, but Dishoom navigates it by bringing just about everything quickly. First out were lamb samosas, cafe crisps and keema pau (spiced lamb mince with buttered bread). The samosas were uninspiring – lots of crispiness but not much flavour – while the cafe crisps were offcuts from the samosas: pastry, essentially. No matter, the accompanying chutneys were excellent.

The keema pau told a different story. Its delicate, sweet spicing and excellent texture were only slight ruined by accompanying buttered burger buns. These made an odd contribution, an early example of a recurring weakness for too much Anglo in the more Anglo-influenced dishes. On that theme, the Desi fish fingers were pretty miserable, their spongy texture and uninteresting batter singularly failing to raise the dish much above what you might expect of a rather less salubrious fast food joint.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, then it should, but only really because the weak dishes are so unnecessary. The house black daal was magnificently buttery, while the accompanying garlic naan was thin, delicate and crispy. Spicy lamb chops were decent, though a couple were slightly burnt, and the day’s special vegetable Ruby Murray was sublime. A paneer and mushroom Roomali Roll would make an excellent lunch on its own, though didn’t quite work as part of a dinner – it’s an Indian burrito, more or less; chicken berry biryani was as subtle and richly textured as you could justifiably expect for £7.50. Add copious quantities of bottled Meantime to the mix, and Dishoom has pretty much nailed the quick and tasty experience for this location.

Even the desserts were pretty good - not always the case in Indian restaurants. We tried passion fruit and ginger Gola ice and pistachio Kulfi on a stick. Both were perfectly fine, refreshing and sweet.

The service is efficient and smiley, which is good, though they did manage to serve one of our number salt water instead of tap water. An odd choice, I’m sure you’ll agree. At less than £25 per head, Dishoom is far better value than most places in the area. Indeed, as a pre- or post- theatre venue, you’d be hard pushed to find many better places - it is curry, after all.

Phil Letts' take: 7/10

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 18 September 2010


There’s a memorable and irritating scene in Wayne’s World that sees the malevolent Joshua, smooth rival to the rather cruder Wayne, assert his taste and sophistication by serving champagne. The radiant Cassandra, object of his slimy affections, says she has ‘never had French champagne’ before. Joshua knows, of course, that ‘all champagne is French’; anything else ‘is just sparkling wine.’ He tells everyone so, not letting his smug mask slip for one second. Joshua may be right, but he’s also a dick.

These days, people bang on and on about authenticity in food. Stilton should come from Stilton, Parma ham from Parma, Burgundy from Burgundy and Scotch from Scotland. If your coffee says it’s made of civet shit, then you’d damn well better be able to smell it, goes the thinking. But while no one would argue in favour of ignoring the provenance of our food, it’s important not to confuse worthy efforts to protect the quality of a product with rather less wholesome lobbying to maintain a monopoly.

The Discover the Origin campaign is a part-EU funded promoter of protected designation of origin (PDO) foods and similarly protected wines (though these are often labelled DOC or AOC protected). In short, they make sure that people who buy Parmigiano-Reggiano not only know what they’re buying, but also know about its provenance. The campaign is also highlighting Parma ham, Burgundy wines, port and Douro.

It all sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Of course Stilton should be from Stilton, you might think. Burgundy must come from Burgundy, because it’s a place and a name. Otherwise, Burgundy would be just wine.

But, here’s a thing. Stilton doesn’t come from Stilton. Indeed, cheese made in the Cambridgeshire village of that name could not use the appellation. The PDO for Stilton covers cheese made in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Not a town named Stilton in sight.

Similarly, Parmigiano-Reggiano does not have to be made in Parma or Reggio Emilia. Makers in Modena, Mantua right of the river Po and Bologna left of the river Reno also have the right to manufacture the cheese. Yes, they’re close by, but that’s not really the point. Despite what some would have you believe, these names are the names of products, not places. An American consumer of Parmigiano-Reggiano might well assume that their cheese was produced in one of the places that give it its name. They might well be wrong.

What on earth is going on then? What are these designations actually for? Well, they certainly help manufacturers who are licensed to produce certified products. If you can sell a cheese under the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, then you can sell it for more than if it were called ‘hard cheese from Italy’ or some such. Indeed, it could be argued that these designations have as much to do with entrenching and preserving monopolies as with protecting traditional products. All things being roughly equal, there’s no reason why you couldn’t produce a cheese in Scunthorpe using traditional methods that could pass for Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Maybe there’s something I’m missing. Whether it’s cheeses or wines, someone always has a reason why a certain area is the only area for production. Perhaps the cows are different, perhaps the soil is different, maybe it’s the temperature, or the humidity, or the incline of the vineyard.

This idea of terroir is all well and good, and may even be accurate for some products – especially wine. But it seems rich to extol the differences between neighbouring vineyards in Burgundy on the one hand and on the other claim that there’s something specific to all Burgundian wines that means they cannot be made anywhere else. Even the geographical argument is something of a red herring. With wines, Burgundy is a brand, not a place. How many people could even point to it on an unlabelled map?

The appellation benefits winemakers in that area, and it may even provide a certain guarantee of quality (though, as Chianti enthusiasts will tell you, some of the very best wines from that area of Italy don’t meet the criteria for the DOC/DOCG label), but it doesn’t tell you all that much about what the wine might taste like, nor why it’s different from similarly made wines that don’t carry the name.

I would argue that the PDO programme and its various equivalents are about money. And while there may be very valid reasons why Burgundy is protected by the French AOC (on which the EU PDO is based), just because it is from Burgundy is not good enough.

There is a principle in European trademark law that it is not permitted to trademark a generic name. This also applies to geographical protection. So cheddar is deemed a generic term and so unprotectable. That’s why we have Canadian cheddar and not just Somerset cheddar. But really, is champagne not generic? Is Parmigiano-Reggiano? Certainly port could be considered a generic term for a dark, sweet, fortified wine.

So if PDO is not the answer, what is? I would argue for some kind of standard that guarantees quality, not provenance – a PDO without the geographical restrictions. It would undoubtedly be a nightmare to organise, and would almost certainly require some sort of international treaty to get it through, but if someone can genuinely make a Stilton cheese in Canberra that is indistinguishable from one made in Leicestershire, why shouldn’t they?

Clearly this is pie in the sky. No one is going to give up a lucrative monopoly voluntarily. But couldn’t we at least drop some of the pretence? Protecting traditions is arguably a worthy endeavour, and there are certainly examples where the geography of a certain area has not morphed into a generic product description, and really does contribute something to the quality of the product. But it is no coincidence that PDO products are more expensive than imitations. Parma ham costs more than Tuscan ham because of its name, not because it's always any better. Often, it's indistinguishable.

Note: I was inspired to write this piece after a freebie bloggers evening at Cucina Caldesi courtesy of Discover the Origin. While I have some reservations about PDO, it was a great evening. My thanks go to Katrina Alloway for organising, Discover the Origin for providing the fun, and Katie Caldesi for her hospitality and excellent demonstration.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Mem & Laz, 8 Therberton Street, Islington

Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares used to be a good watch. Crazy people running restaurants badly is a funny idea. Unfortunately, after the first three episodes, it became clear that the show’s approach was a formulaic as its presenter’s angry shtick. These days, Gordon needs only to walk into a restaurant for us to know that the following is wrong with it: bad management, terrible decor and a messy, over-complicated menu. His ‘advice’ can usually be boiled down to three words: keep it simple.

Mem & Laz is not a kitchen nightmare. It’s a busy and economical option in an area not known for its bargains. But it could learn something from everyone’s favourite Scottish swearbag. The menu needs to be much shorter and far simpler. Looking again on the website, I count 88 dishes on the main menu (including desserts but not including side dishes). There was also a separate specials list of about 8 the night we visited. That’s a whole lot of dishes, even for a restaurant that bills itself with the rather unspecific ‘Mediterranean’ label.

There were only two of us, so this review only covers about 4 per cent of the available menu. Sorry about that.

My starter was a special seafood salad at £4.95. It had some octopus and small prawns in it, as well lots of slighty unpleasant lemony vinegar to dress, and assorted leaves and salady bits, none of which were particularly inspiring. It was ok. On the plus side, it was enormous – easily big enough for a main dish.

On the other side of the table was the ‘Deep fried trio of cheeses’ with cranberry sauce and mixed leaves. The camembert was rich and interesting, unlike the brie and mozzarella, which were flavourless and rubbery. The cranberry sauce was sweet and red, which is something. The mixed leaves were mixed and leafy. Again though, if assessed purely by weight, this was a good deal.

Mains were large too. I had pan-fried chicken livers with bacon, spinach and red onion salad. I hate to think how many chickens died in the making of this dish, but I’d guess at 20 or so. To be fair, the livers were nicely cooked, if a bit lacking in flavour. The raw red onion that turned up in every mouthful rather overpowered everything else, I’m afraid, even the gigantic bits of bacon.

Chargrilled lamb chops with red wine sauce, potato and Mediterranean vegetables came recommended by the efficient and friendly waiter. They were probably the best things we ate – generously portioned, quite well cooked (but quite well-cooked as well, if you know what I mean) and with a gloopy red wine sauce that looked like bisto but tasted better.

All this was accompanied be a really very good bottle of Tempranillo. At £11.95, this was my favourite discovery of the meal.

Mem & Laz is essentially a restaurant for students. The portions are truly mind-boggling, the food is inoffensive, and the location and atmosphere are pretty good. We spent £41 pounds between us on more food than we could possibly eat and a bottle of very decent wine. That’s pretty unusual in this, or any other part of town. What’s more, with the largest menu I think I’ve ever seen, you’re almost bound to find something you can eat.

Phil Lett’s take: 5/10

Mem & Laz on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Lan Kwai Fong, 95 Cowley Road, Oxford

Oxford’s great. It’s like London’s gentler, smaller, slower sibling: not the kind of person you’d want to go on a roaring night out with, but perhaps someone with whom you could spend the hungover morning after.

The food has a similar sense of ease about it. You feel that restaurants get a little more leeway here, that there’s a touch more room for error. Things don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be good.

And who needs perfect anyway? Anyone who’s tried cooking Heston Blumenthal’s Bolognese can vouch for that.

Lan Kwai Fong
, on Oxford’s Cowley Road, is certainly not perfect. Kitsch, odd and fun, but not perfect.

First, the food. Garlicky squid was batter and grease heavy, and on the not-crispy side of crispy. Crispy seaweed, in contrast, not only lived up to the ‘crispy’ bit of its name, it also tasted as if it might once have been somewhere near the sea – oddly uncommon in Chinese restaurants. Was it actual seaweed? No, but is it ever in England? It tasted great.

It’s tempting to say that those two experiences summed up the restaurant: tempting, and inaccurate. Nothing else was crispy, for one thing.

In fact, the squid was easily the worst dish we ate, while the seaweed was arguably the most competent, if not the most delicious. That honour was shared between two more meaty dishes.

‘Chicken wings in capital sauce’ doesn’t sound like the most appetising of appetisers. These were sweet, sticky but not cloying, and meat-heavy. Five for £5.50 is a real bargain.

Best of all though was the pork belly, braised in ‘sweet sauce’. If there was a dish of the noughties, it was surely the gastro-pub pork belly, crunchy-crackled, fatty, tasty and cheap(ish) as if the mere fact of using a cheaper cut made something better. This, predictably, was nothing like those dishes. Braised belly is an acquired taste. Or rather, it’s an acquired texture, all chewy and slippery and gloopy. But in the right hands, it’s pretty special. What sweet sauce is I have no idea, though there was certainly soy, sugar, garlic and vinegar in this one, and probably fennel too, with maybe some star anise and cinnamon. For those of us who like our meat fatty, it was a treat.

There were other dishes: beef noodles, pak choi, beef in oyster sauce. They were above average, but with nothing to mark them out either way. The meal came in at about £20 pounds per head for three of us, including a beer or two and some rice, and with plenty left for doggy bags.

But that’s not all there is to say about Lan Kwai Fong. The waiting staff deserve particular praise for their bonhomie, while the venue itself is a hoot. A converted pub, the restaurant makes an unholy and very funny mishmash of pub, cocktail bar, nightclub and eatery, complete with fruit machines, garish colouring, karaoke screens, cocktails that come with health warnings, and a pub garden.

So no, it’s not perfect, but if you find yourself on Cowley Road, you could do a lot worse. I know I have.

Phil Lett’s take: 6/10

Lan Kwai Fong on Urbanspoon