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.

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 

Hix Restaurant & Champagne Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Tinello, 87 Pimlico Road, Belgravia

In 1995, 20th Century Fox released a film called Strange Days. Starring Ralph Fiennes as a predictably flawed cop who more or less gets the improbably odd job done, it was a pretty miserable effort. On the other hand, the film climaxes in a sea of frothing ecstasy at a giant street party in Los Angeles on 31st December 1999. This, like other sci-fi parties (notably in Starship Troopers), looks extraordinarily fun - a party so cool that the ways in which it’s cool haven’t even been invented yet.

Tinello, a new Giorgio Locatelli-backed and inspired offering in Pimlico, is similar. It looks fabulous; the kind of space (hate that word) that makes you feel as if everyone else has missed a trick. It prompts you to ask why all restaurants with pretensions to relaxed, smart quality don’t look like this. Hanging lamps give just enough light per table for vision, creating an illusion of privacy and intimacy, while the bricks and woods of the decor are just really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Too cool for school certainly, but then thank God we’re not at school any more.

Owners and brothers Max and Federico Salli are wine-guy and chef respectively. Their Tuscan heritage is sporadically felt – the menu is a mixed bag of Italian favourites, heavily influenced by Roman, Southern Italian and Marche traditions.

With both Antipasti and ‘Small Eats’ available, it’s slightly tricky to work out what to have for starter. We went for some small eats, and regretted it. Crispy courgette fries were so thin as to lose any remnants of vegetable flavour, instead tasting somewhat of grease and not much else. Polpetto and even Byron do similar dishes better. Burrata with garlicky, tomatoey bread was better, though with nothing to mark it out. Polenta with porcini mushrooms was ok, but under-seasoned and too curd-like in texture for my taste. While I’m sure they were fresh, the porcini were diced so they resembled the sort of thing you find vacuum-packed in Italian supermarkets, ready prepped to be stirred into a risotto. Pickled octopus was beautifully soft and giving, though the pickle all but obliterated any marine flavour. It was a disappointing start, only slightly mitigated by the excellent Prosecco we chose to accompany it, and the fact than no dish cost more than £3.50.


Things improved thereafter. For primi, we went for pasta – mine was nduja sausage and tomato with more burrata over pacchieri pasta (like giant, squat rigatoni). The pasta was perfectly cooked, the sauce intense, hot and tasty. A tagliatelle dish suffered from that odd, diced, textureless porcini, but again, the pasta was excellent. Finally, spinach and ricotta gnudi (a kind of mousse-cum- gnocchi) with tomato were delicious and suitably Tuscan, though extremely rich and almost too generously portioned. At between £7 and £10 each, they were very good value.

My main course was genuinely superb. A whole veal chop, beautifully rare, smothered in butter and accompanied by long-baked fennel and sage, is about as good as food gets in my book. The fat on its own had me smiling for days afterwards. The dish was the high point of the meal, and at £20, it felt like decent value, given the tiny number of places in London that even serve veal chops, let alone cook them like this.

Brill, borlotti beans and clams was good too, though the fish itself was rather overshadowed by the excellence of the accompaniments. Cod on celeriac puree made an unusual but winning combination.

A bottle of Roncaglia Colli Pesaresi at £28 and a young Barbera at £40 both made super accompaniments, and at reasonable prices for the quality.

Three out of four of us went for Pecorino in lieu of dolci. So few Italian restaurants in London manage to serve good pecorino with good honey and figs. In Italy, it’s a favourite. This pecorino was strong and rude enough to delight, while medlar honey provided the perfect, thick accompaniment. Fig jam was fine too, but I only really had eyes for cheese and honey. Cute Letts ordered tiramisu. It was ok, though cream-heavy and marscapone-light. The dessert courses seemed underpriced, if anything: at £5.50, the cheese was the most expensive on the menu.

We accompanied this with grappa (for me), Armagnac, Vecchia Romagna and Disaronno. All proved excellent value and quality (well, as much as you can ever hope for a quality Vecchia Romagna).

It felt like we had really pushed the boat out, so when the bill came in at about £70 per head, it seemed about right. In truth, Tinello costs far less than it might do.

The waiting staff were fun, chatty and knowledgeable, and had no problem with our party staying until about 12.15, three or so hours after we entered. For a meal that started so badly, I feel surprisingly positive about the restaurant, though they should probably confine small eats to the lunch menu or just get rid of them entirely. If it is to be a success, you would think the prices will have to go up, but for now, Tinello is a reasonable option with lots of potential.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Tinello on Urbanspoon

Friday, 15 October 2010

Ben Greeno's Supperclub, somewhere in Hackney

Ben Greeno is a cheat. It’s not that he bowls deliberate no balls, or has affairs, or looks over your shoulder during poker games (as far as I know). He doesn’t, I assume, take dives in boxing matches, defraud international financial institutions or not pay his car insurance. He’s not a cheat in that sense.

No, Ben Greeno is a cheat because he claims to run a simple supperclub. You know, the sort that’s springing up all over London, staffed by excellent amateur chefs and run in a slightly chaotic but extremely fun manner. He does not.

With experience at everyone’s favourite restaurant that they haven’t been to, Noma, and big plans of his own Stateside, Ben is no amateur (even if he clearly loves his food). Do you own a water bath for slow cooking an egg over more than an hour? Have you ever served said egg, as your third course, with snails and wild garlic, its texture like good giant frogspawn, its yolk otherworldly? I didn’t think so.

Do you have the time, inclination and skill to prepare Jerusalem artichokes so they look like scallops, coat them in butter and tweezer them, salty, onto a plate alongside glorious hazlenuts, giving the whole the appearance of a Japanese garden? I don’t (especially not the skill).

When we have mackerel at home, Cute Letts and I, we tend to grill it or bake it whole. It’s delicious. If we’re feeling particularly ambitious, we might try to make a ceviche. But it would be a rare day that saw us attempt to present it raw with nasturtium flowers and dill cucumber pickle.

On the other hand, everyone can do pork belly, can't they? It’s easy. Cook it for ages with the right amount of salt and you’re bound to produce a winning dish. Cooking it like Ben Greeno does however, is not quite so straightforward. The pork tasted extraordinary – that’s almost a given here. But the ‘pickled walnut crumble’ topping it was absurdly good: pickled walnuts, blitzed crackling and some breadcrumbs created a salt and sour extravaganza that perfectly complemented the sweet pork. Broccoli worked beautifully with the dish.

I can’t cook desserts at all, so I won’t even pretend that I’d attempt something like Ben’s apple concoction. It was excellent by normal standards, but probably my least favourite dish of the night, given what had gone before. An attempt to do too much with too little perhaps. Apple in lots of different shapes is still apple, and the long, cylindrical pieces proved a real challenge, not giving into spoon work and having to be eaten more or less whole. They were tasty, sweet with muscovado and lightly spiced, but for me, slightly underwhelming.

No matter, salty caramel on teaspoons more than made up for any lingering disappointment.

Supper clubs are generally about atmosphere first and food a close second (certainly in my limited experience at three of them). Ben Greeno’s was about food first, but the atmosphere was brilliant too, helped by the warm-up glass of cider. Everyone had brought plenty of wine, which helped. Excellent company from guests including 360 degrees cheese and Ben’s delightful next door neighbour added to the charm, while Ben proved a genial host. We left at about eleven, but would have liked to stay much later. Others, I assume, did.

Supperclubs like this rather screw up my marking system. The only other one I’ve reviewed seemed so good that it deserved a 9/10, bearing in mind that supperclubs are not, nor should be, marked as if they were comparable to restaurants. But by that rationale, Ben would probably deserve a 10. My only disappointing supperclub visit occurred well before this blog started. It would probably have received a 5 by these standards.

I’m going to cop out and not give this one a mark. Ben Greeno’s is a terrific supperclub, but I don’t think he’s really competing against other places that are so-called. For £35, you get excellent restaurant-quality food, professionally presented, produced and served. I’d get down there fast if I were you. It won’t last forever.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Magdalen Arms, 243 Iffley Rd, Oxford

Is there a less appealing word in English than gastropub? It’s infuriating. There’s that horrible appeal to notions of gastronomy (or gastronomie, I expect), the related implication that there is something special about gastropubs ahead of normal pubs, and the unbearable all round smugness of the phrase. You’d even credit it with pretentiousness, were it not for the laughable idiocy of the Greek prefix gastro in the context, which makes the word mean ‘stomach pub’, more or less. What would one of those look like, I wonder?

The point of all this is merely to highlight that pubs are pubs are pubs. Some of the best also serve excellent food. Others don’t. You wouldn’t know it to look at some of the miserable places that use the moniker though. Many are not pubs at all; rather, they’re overpriced mediocre restaurants, or reasonably priced decent restaurants. My rule of thumb is that a pub, gastro or otherwise, is somewhere you could go for a drink, ideally of warm ale and nothing else, on your own, without feeling awkward.

Happily, The Magdalen Arms in Oxford is precisely such a place. Despite really outstanding food, it feels like a location for nursing a quiet pint, or a loud one for that matter, without provoking comment. In this particular instance though, anyone doing that would be missing out.
The food at The Magdalen Arms is brilliant. It’s easily the best food I’ve eaten in a pub, and I’m including the wonderful-but-possibly-not-a-proper-pub Hinds Head in that.
We were celebrating a friend finishing his DPhil, so started with a glass of quince Prosecco. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of quince Prosecco, but it tasted excellent, with a surprising subtlety of flavour and the right mix of slight tanginess and sweet. At £3.80 per glass, it was also wildly good value.
Starters of deep fried brawn with gribiche (quite like tartare sauce) and hanging courgettes with Wigmore were highlights. The brawn was crispy, not too greasy and preposterously piggy, while the Wigmore and courgette concoction had more flavour than a non-meat dish has any right to. Six rock oysters were delicate and tasty, and most importantly, served at the right temperature. I can’t stand places that, whether through paranoia or stupidity, serve oysters so cold they could give you neuralgia. These were cool, but not very cold, and all the better for that.
Snail and bacon salad made up the starter numbers. The lightly and deliciously dressed salad was slightly overwhelmed for me by the bacon flavour, though others at the table disagreed. Either way, that was as bad as things got. The snails were cooked to perfection.
Then, and oh my gosh, there was the lamb shoulder: only available for groups of four or five, priced at sixty four pounds, and accompanied by dauphinoise potatoes the likes of which you wish you could eat all the time. It was truly superb, giving but not at all sloppy, tender enough to be eaten with a spoon but robust enough for you not to want to, flavoured with mint, sherry (I think), possibly some thyme and bay, and accompanied by all the carrots you could ask for. If it’s possible, the potatoes were even more extraordinary, all garlic and cream and cooked just right.
I realise I’m descending into hyperbole here, but this was simply marvellous: better than a similar dish at Hereford Road, better than the one I cook at home, and generous enough that we had both lamb and potato to take with us for breakfast the next morning. The house red was a more than decent accompaniment.
You’d think we’d have left it there, but dessert followed – an English cheese plate and a buttermilk pudding with stewed apples. Both were very good indeed, though I didn’t much care for the texture of the goat’s cheese (the name of which I was too lazy to discover - sorry).
Were there problems with it? Well, it was a little too hot, and the windows only opened a fraction.

When I last wrote about eating in Oxford, I said that there is a little more leeway than in London; that establishments can afford to be worse than their capital counterparts. That may be true, but The Magdalen Arms would be absolutely excellent anywhere in the country. At about 35 pounds per head for three courses, some wine, coffee and an aperitif, it’s well worth the effort. I urge you to go as soon as you can. A stomach pub indeed.
Phil Letts’ take: 9/10