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