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.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Osteria Francescana, Via Stella 22, Modena

“This dish,” Massimo Bottura, chef proprietor of the World’s 4th Best Restaurant*, modestly tells us, “moves from Robuchon at the bottom to Ferran Adria at the top, with my grandmother in between.” What nonna Bottura makes of that particular arrangement is, as far as I know, unrecorded, but it’s certainly the most pretentious thing I’ve heard in a restaurant. 

The dish in question is one of the better efforts in our €130 ‘Classics’ tasting menu (a ‘Sensations’ menu would have cost €170, the ‘Traditional’ €100, and a la carte about €45 per dish). It’s a ‘compression of pasta and beans’ that features a wildly rich piece of foie gras at the bottom (the Robuchon, presumably), hints of pasta, parmesan and balsamic in the middle (granny), a bean broth/puree type thing above (ditto), and a kind of foam that tastes of rosemary on top (Adria). “We suggest you put your spoon right to the bottom to have all the sections at once,” says one of our waiters. We try, we really do, but it’s pretty difficult, and we end up slurping half-formed bits of pasta and leave most of the foie gras until the end by accident. As a whole, it doesn’t work at all, but its discrete parts are all wonderful in their ways, so we enjoy it.

This dish, like many at Osteria Francescana, seems designed to challenge diners, to try their patience and understanding as much as their palettes. It is, of course, very impressive to press home-cooked Italian tradition in between two of the great culinary masters of the era, very difficult to smuggle mama’s kitchen into the same shot glass as Rebuchon’s French and Adria’s extra-planetary styles. Massimo pulls it off with something approaching aplomb. But, there’s a question that no one seems to have asked: why bother? For all its allusive pyrotechnics, the dish doesn’t make sense, the flavours don’t work (or at the very least, don’t balance) and the contrast in textures resolves into something cloying and over-rich.

This dish is our fifth of nine. We started, a long time ago, with ‘a memory of Mortadella sandwich’. It sounds like it should be treading the same sort of path as Heston Blumenthal’s sardine ice-cream: that is, providing a nostalgia trip, deploying exhilarating techniques to crystallise a taste memory in a new and exciting form. A ‘memory of Mortadella sandwich’ (the English translation doesn’t help it) does not do that. It’s a strong, light Mortadella pate served with some crispy bread and pistachio. If you had it as a canape at a friend’s, you’d be extremely impressed; as the opening salvo at the best restaurant in Italy**, it’s pretty disappointing.

Next up is an ice-lolly. Or is it? No, it isn’t, actually. It’s calvados-flavoured foie gras on a stick rolled in hazlenuts, with some thick, cool, viscous balsamic vinegar inside. The waiters bring us a knife and fork, then the plate, and then one of them intones the instruction: “We suggest you eat this with your fingers”. In another restaurant, this would be played as a joke (it is, I think, quite funny). Here, it is as if they want you to eat with your fingers but also to remind you that you’re sitting in a very serious, very formal, very good restaurant. This is not a place for fun. The dish is delicious, in the way that foie gras rolled in nuts is almost certain to be. I’m not sure it’s all that innovative, but that’s another matter. It reminds us of a Feast – ‘memory of a nutty lolly’, perhaps.

This is followed by one of the highlights of the evening: a slightly sour, warm, leek, truffle and shallot tart with black truffle shaved on top. The truffle shavings are predictably flavourless (surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that shaved black truffle has a bit of the emperor’s new clothes about it), but the tart is a wonder, autumnal and enveloping and extremely tasty. It’s the first dish of the evening that feels like it could only have been made here.

The next is the next, and the absolute highlight of the meal. Billed as ‘Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures’, it’s an extraordinary riff on the local cheese. There is a cold, creamy mousse with a young, intense parmesan flavour, then, getting older, a parmesan tuille, parmesan foam (or air, or whatever you want to call it), parmesan soufflé and, most incredible of all, a sort of custard of 52-month aged parmesan. This is so intense, so joyous, that it’s scarcely believable. If we’d eaten this dish alone for our meal, I’d probably have left thinking Osteria Franscescana deserved every bit of its reputation. 

Alas, next comes the Rebuchon/Adria/granny concoction, and we bump a little bit back down to earth. No matter, that’s followed by a cotechino and lentil ravioli, steamed to perfection in Lambrusco (the local tipple). It’s very good indeed, with perfect pasta encasing a luxurious but not too fatty sausage and lentil mix, the three textures playing off each other to great effect.  

The kitchen feels like it’s on a roll now, and the next course promises much – bollito misto is about as traditional a dish as you can find in this part of Italy. Boiled bits of tongue, head, sometimes trotter, belly and any other odd bits of pig and cow end up here, typically served with a green, herby salsa verde and sweet salsa rossa. It’s like that here, but with a key difference: this bollito is, the waiter proudly states, "bollito non-bollito". 

The meat is not boiled, it’s cooked sous vide; the salsa rossa is a sweet impression of a peperonata; the green sauce is green foam. It’s delicious, certainly, but it’s not as good as the one we have the next day for about €12 (review to follow), mainly because what you gain in texture from sous vide, you lose in stock flavour. Again, the techniques are flawless, but the dish fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of its own existence. 

A pre-dessert of goats’ cheese ice cream and honey is a marvellous palate cleanser, setting us up perfectly for the main event – zuppa Inglese. This weird concoction of sponge, chocolate and boozy orange, with Alchermes liqueur, is strange enough at the best of times – like an English trifle on LSD. But here, it’s bizarre to the point of unpalatability. Looking like the kind of thing a precocious 16 year old would serve on MasterChef, there’s a delicious chocolate cake sat next to uninteresting, boozy sponge and a cold vanilla thing that hovers somewhere in texture between custard and ice-cream. This in turn is covered with a thick layer of chewy, flavourless pink gelatine that looks and tastes like cellophane. It’s ridiculous. The zuppa Inglese we order with lunch the next day is far better. 

With excellent coffee and petit fours, super breadsticks and decent, plentiful bread, Osteria Francescana has the peripherals doing more or less what they should. But over-zealous water and wine waiters (note that plural – there are a lot), create a trial-like atmosphere that distracts from the food and a delicious, cool bottle of Lombardian pinot nero. The restaurant is stuffy and arty (like the food) – everyone whispers, no one smiles. 

Italy is arguably the best place in the world to eat because it is blessed with the best traditions, the best ingredients and the best attitudes toward food. At Osteria Francescana, all three go out the window. For €370 for two with one bottle of wine, it’s a bit disappointing.

*may not be accurate

**may not be accurate

Phil Letts' take: 5/10

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Pizza East, 310 Portobello Road, Portobello

You know Pizza Express? I don’t like it. Strada? Nope. Ask? Don't ask. Domino’s? Urgh. Zizzi? No good. Pizza Hut? No thanks. Papa John’s? No idea.

The English (and sometimes American) chain pizza restaurant is a thing of wonder. Many years ago, most likely in the 1980s, when crass interpretations of extra-national fads were the culinary rage and sophistication’s name was dough ball, a conspiracy was born. It’s the only explanation.

If I wanted to serve food from Timbuktu in a restaurant, I might do some research, even visit the country, and experiment painstakingly until I’d approximated as nearly as possible the edible highlights of the culture, perhaps adding a few more familiar touches to ease it into the local market. The UK pizza pioneers seem to have got together, decided what a good pizza looked and tasted like, and set about creating variations on the theme of its opposite. From the base (sloppy and insubstantial or greasy and thick or chewy and floury, depending on your outlet) to the topping (cheese on cheese on cheese, normally, with the odd bit of ‘chicken’, sweet tomato puree and breakfast sausage thrown in), most of the time these pizzas bear as much resemblance to their ancestral forbears as I do to Clive Owen. It’s not that you can’t enjoy yourself with the poor relation, more that it’s just not the same thing.

In the past few years, there have been inklings of a turnaround, rumours of good pizza at Franco Manca (confirmed by yours truly one boozy Easter Sunday, but not reviewed) and Pizza East. Outside the capital, the situation remains grave, I’m afraid.

But Pizza East (originally in Shoreditch, and with a new branch on Portobello Road) is really quite good. Instead of ‘cheese sticks’ or ‘dough balls’ or ‘chicken wings’, there are antipasti of bone marrow bruschette and mushroom crostini, sides of deep–fried aubergine and interesting salads.

The pizzas come based on flavoursome dough, light but sturdy, thin enough not to swallow the topping but thick enough to hold steady. There’s not a stuffed crust in sight. The toppings follow the best Italian tradition of all: simplicity. Few pizzas have more than two (above cheese and sometimes tomato), and a frankly beautiful courgette, ricotta and oregano offering is about as complicated as things get. Mine, a classic Neapolitan, boasted delicate anchovies and tart, vinegary capers. It was gorgeous.

Because it’s conveniently located in my neck of the woods, I’ve now been twice, like any good reviewer should. The second time, we discovered they serve Aperol, which is always worth knowing, and the pizza menu had changed. Gone but not forgotten, the courgette was missed. Happily, artichokes and ham stood in marvellously. On another pizza, burrata, tomato and basil were wicked.

Pizza East is not flawless by any means. It suffers (not financially) from being insanely popular, which with no booking, means waits of up to 45 minutes for a table at busy times. The bases, while better than most in London, are perhaps a touch on the dry side. Prices are fair, but not especially low, and the waiting staff, though very beautiful, sometimes seem slightly overwhelmed by it all. But it feels like a good local, and it’s fun. Most importantly, if you were looking for the country from which it takes its inspiration, you’d pick Italy. And there aren’t many pizza restaurants in London for which you can say that.

Phil Letts' take: 8/10
Pizza East Portobello on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Riding House Cafe, 43-51 Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia

Celebrity chefs, nutritionists, the government and even ‘doctors’ agree: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. They’re wrong, of course, having confused ‘waking up early’ with virtue and ‘lack of coffee’ with fatigue. The most important meal of the day is, quite obviously, brunch, even more so if the day is Sunday. With all the benefits of breakfast and none of the puritanical insanity, it is both the most leisurely and the most fully enjoyable of meals. If you eat a huge brunch, you have most of a day to work it off; try that size of meal for dinner, and you’ll be fat and sleepless.

The Riding House Cafe understands this, which is why it confines ‘small plates’ to the lunch and dinner menus, when people can more easily be persuaded to overspend on bite-sized eating. It offers proper, full-bodied breakfast-type dishes from 9 until 12 on Sundays (starting at 8 during the week), and it’s all the better for that.

The ‘full & proper breakfast’ was far too big for an early morning repast, but hit the spot perfectly at 11 o’clock. With plenty of superb Orkney bacon, excellent black pudding and a fantastic pork sausage, alongside the other standard trappings of a full English, it was worth the hefty £9.40 price tag.

Cured sea trout with crème fraiche and toast was delicate and subtle, a lighter, more refreshing alternative to the brunchy big guns, and at £7.50, decent value. For the same price, an Orkney bacon sandwich ought to have been excellent. It was, if only because it contained about 10 rashers of bacon, rather than the usual couple. The bacon at the Riding House Cafe is a wonder, thick, sweet, and far more porky than normal.

All this was good, and avocado on toast reached a similar standard, but perhaps surprisingly, the best things about brunch at the Riding House Cafe were the drinks. Served in an old-style milk bottle, an oat, natural yoghurt, orange juice, honey, cinnamon, banana and spirulina smoothie revitalised and lubricated, while apple, ginger, beetroot and carrot juice felt easily healthy enough to counterbalance the less wholesome elements of the meal. Even the coffee was excellent.

Immediately after this meal, I went shopping in Selfridges. It’s a testament to the quality of brunch at the Riding House Cafe that it saw me through this most unappetising of experiences. Indeed, I managed two hours of West End shopping and a whole wedding reception without screaming at anyone. I’d say that makes it worth a visit.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10 

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, 22 July 2011

CAU, 274 High Street, Guildford

Food in Guildford is a bit of a mystery. The city that brought us the scary cathedral in The Omen is prosperous, stockbroker-full and pleasant. There’s plenty of money floating around and yet, in the 20 or so years that I have known it, I can count the genuinely good restaurants that have come and gone on two fingers. One, an excellent curry place, closed down after someone (quite possibly a rival) threw a brick through its window and generally made life difficult, while the other, Thai restaurant Rum Wong, remains. Guildford should have good places to eat, but it doesn’t, preferring mediocre chains or the odd nice pub instead. 

So when somewhere like CAU opens, it feels quite unusual. This Gaucho Grill-alike, sister of a restaurant in Amsterdam, could pass almost unnoticed in London, but in Guildford’s culinary wasteland, its opening is a bit of an event.

The premise is straightforward: steak like South Americans do it. Yes, there are assorted fishy and vegetable starters available, the odd salad, even a chicken sandwich, but you wouldn’t really go here unless you wanted red meat.

We decided against starters, more than making do with crispbread and delightful tomato and aubergine dips, rich and smoky.

For mains, everyone had steak. Mine, a 12oz ribeye at £18.50, was extremely good, beautifully blue, thick and full of flavour. Horseradish sauce on the side was pedestrian, but it hardly mattered. When a steak restaurant is good, there’s a limit to what can be said about it, but a Brazilian-style tapa de cuadril, thinly sliced and fatty, was well-textured and nicely charred, while lomito medallions had more flavour than you might expect from a largely fat-free cut. 

Thrice-cooked chips were decent, as was a mixed salad, though the latter was forgotten, along with a water jug, for what seemed like ages but was probably a few minutes. Onion rings proved suitably greasy, but not at all soggy. 

A good malbec is really the only thing to drink with steak in my view, and so we did, for about £22.

CAU’s dessert menu is full of dulce de leche. ‘Banana split with a twist’ was delicious – American in its style and indulgence. Plum and strawberry crumble was just ok, while dulce de leche pancakes with caramel ice cream were as sweet as they sound. 

CAU stands for Carne Argentina Única. It’s hardly unique, nor are the dishes uniformly Argentinean, but it is good, and at about £35-£40 per head for two courses and wine, just about worth it, especially in Guildford - the kind of place @philippawl (twitter follower number 300) might like, assuming she's not vegetarian. But there is still, surely, room in the city for somewhere really good. Anyone?

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Cau on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

San Francisco, the Napa Valley and Heathrow Airport (part two)

It has been, quite literally, 34 days since I last posted anything on this blog. A potent combination of frenetic busyness and frenetic business, coupled with a congenital inclination to laze, has made the last few weeks completely impossible, rendered palatable at all only by memories of California.

With work finished and leisure begun (see part one for more on that), restaurants could be picked for their promise, not their practicality. San Francisco is a cooking pot of cultures, with Asia especially well-represented.

We began at Akiko’s, a Japanese restaurant near our hotel (the Hotel Des Arts, a treat for those on smallish budgets). With a superb array of nigiri, brilliantly explained by our excellent waiter, we sampled delights ranging from barracuda to tuna, from arctic char to sea urchin and quail’s egg. While it wasn’t cheap to follow the waiter’s suggestions (about $60 per head without much to drink), the quality of fish put most London sushi restaurants to shame, while the decor fell on just the right side of the line between intimate and cramped.

After something like 7 different nigiri, of which the sweet, oily mackerel and smoky barracuda were my favourites, we needed something a little more chunky before braving the evening’s bars and their inevitable Anchor Steam. What with being in California, we considered California rolls, but went instead for the remarkable ‘Forty-Niner’, a shrimp tempura, salmon, avocado, and sesame number that crunched and piqued in all the right places. Akiko’s comes highly recommended, not least because it was the only place we visited where the 20% suggested service charge didn’t make this Englishman blench.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

Akiko's Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

The service at The Slanted Door, a dockside Vietnamese restaurant and Bill Clinton favourite, is pretty good too (but then, that’s true of most places in America). The food is remarkable. Now I’m certainly no expert on Vietnamese food, so you’ll have to forgive me, but this place did the whole ‘fresh, sweet, soy and gingery’ experience better than anywhere I’ve tried in London.

A green papaya salad kicked things off. Refreshing and tangy, it was a textural joy, with crunchy peanuts perfectly complementing the rigid, watery fruit and soft pickled carrots. A Vietnamese crepe with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts explored similarly playful territory – crispy crepe, plump shrimp and sweet, giving pork, engaging easily with rice wine, brown sugar flavours and pert bean sprouts. 

Lemongrass pork with a crispy imperial roll and noodles added to the collection of flavours, while bringing a much-needed oiliness to proceedings. 

These all proved mere preludes however, both temporally and qualitatively, to ‘Hanoi style halibut vermicelli’. According to our waitress, this dish hails from a particular street in Hanoi, and is almost unknown further afield. Reading the description, you can see why – the halibut is served with turmeric, dill and a pineapple and anchovy sauce. It sounded revolting, so we ordered it, on the logic that the confidence required to put it on the menu might translate into serious quality at the end. It was a complete, genre-trumping triumph, part pina colada, part kedgeree, part Hawaiian pizza but mostly, simply, superbly cooked fish against vivid flavours that felt like they’d just finished a violent argument with a bout of sticky lovemaking. 

The Slanted Door must surely be the best restaurant at a ferry terminal in the world.

The Slanted Door: 8/10

Slanted Door on Urbanspoon

A ferry ride and car journey later, we were in Yountville – the Napa Valley’s answer to heaven, but with rather more rich people than camels and needle eyes would have you believe. Thomas Keller is the man down here; his French Laundry has been rinsing best restaurant lists for years. Mindful of budgets, we tried its cooler, more relaxed sibling, Ad Hoc, itself a linguistic companion to Keller’s New York effort, Per Se.

All this Latin confuses me, but Ad Hoc was, inter alia, fun and good. You can’t choose what you eat – the menu is put together on an ad hoc basis (boom boom), from whatever ingredients seem best and freshest at the time. Ergo, on the night we went, there was a heavy emphasis on simplicity; food here is given space to speak for itself. Exempli gratia¸ our starter – a clean salad of lettuce hearts with anchovy, tuna, almonds and mandarin, lightly dressed and unchallenging. It was delicious on a hot evening, though not terribly exciting, and the tuna was more cooked that I’d have liked. 

A main course of veal fillet on the bone was much better, with a creamy risotto that, surprisingly, did it no harm, and beautiful fresh peas and carrots. The veal was cooked perfectly, tender and slightly pink; the risotto came rich and white. The portion was enormous. 

Then came the cheese course. I’ve always been wary of American cheeses, suspecting that they only really exist to adorn burgers or make up the numbers in a thick, unhealthy dressing. Well, Leonora, a goats’ cheese from Napa, is far too good for that. It was a glorious, nutty delight, complex and creamy. 

A chocolate cake with caramel ice cream excelled as well, proving the rule that a good meal starts light, progresses richer, and ends heavy. Yountville residents are few in number, yet blessed with an obscene number of excellent restaurants. Ad Hoc was full to bursting. They are doing something very right.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

Post scriptum: Ad Hoc typically charges $55 for dinner.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

San Francisco, Napa Valley and Heathrow Airport (part one)

It started, as transatlantic travel so often does, with a meal in an airport. Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food, at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, fits perfectly in that gleaming monstrosity, with only a terrible pun to mark it out from the various overpriced designer shops that litter the corridors of this most glamourised of bus stations. A breakfast pancake with cinnamon butter and bananas was a treat however, gooey and soft in all the right places. With orange juice and coffee, it came to a laughable £14.50, but then I suppose it was at least twice as good as the less-than-half-price Wetherspoons would have been.

A mere 15 hours later, San Francisco and Mayflower Seafood. I’d dithered about whether to go to this recommended Chinese restaurant, put off by tales of ethically dubious shark fin soup. Those rumours proved founded, but, shamefully perhaps, I went anyway, though I didn’t eat the offending dish. Like AV voting, my decision was a ‘miserable little compromise.’ It’s a shame about the shark fin, because the Mayflower is excellent. Packed to the gills with locals, it was probably one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to, especially at about $25 per head.

Peking duck was fatty and moist, entirely different from the desiccated version we eat here. Frogs legs with garlic and sherry-soaked sausage were a bony revelation, while the more familiar sweet and sour pork was a prime example of the genre.

Beef with honey and mustard sauce excelled too, and Tsingtao beer was exactly the same as it always is. Busy, efficient service and a cacophonous atmosphere made this a great start to the trip, shark fin guilt notwithstanding.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10 (0 for ethics, mine and the restaurant’s)

Mayflower Seafood on Urbanspoon

Corporate hospitality ensured the next day was restaurant-free, but nibbles will only keep you replete for so long. Our next stop was Pagan, a Burmese/Thai mix (a border town, perhaps). Another reasonable option (about $20 each for more than we could eat), this was rather less interesting.

Burmese beef curry was rich and layered, but everything else was rather disappointing, from a sickly coconut chicken noodle soup to a watery thai red curry and spring rolls that were just plain odd.

Phil Letts’ take: 5/10

Pagan on Urbanspoon

Various diners served burgers of varying quality for lunch, but none so exciting I’d recommend attending or avoiding. Thankfully, work then ended and Cute Letts arrived. The proper eating could begin.

After a breezy walk around the fantastically beautiful Lands End, we popped in at the Cliff House, a remarkable double restaurant (posh and bistro) perched, as its name would suggest, on the edge of a cliff. The views were wonderful; the food in the bistro, less so. We went for the daily menu, at $25 for three courses – that’s a pretty good price, which is just as well, considering the rather more elevated numbers had we selected from the carte.

A tomato panzanella (so-called, though I don’t think that’s a particularly accurate description) to start featured beautiful, fresh, flavoursome tomatoes and decent mozzarella, all rather ruined by a ‘balsamic reduction’ that smacked of long-boiled, cheap vinegar, and overpowered the clean, simple flavours of the rest of the dish.

Swordfish followed, simply grilled and only slightly overcooked. Asparagus and carrots were surprisingly bland accompaniments, though a tapenade-type topping was better. A dessert of zabaglione and red fruits rescued things somewhat, the sweet, rich froth a perfect foil for juicy fruits.

An awful Monterey Riesling and a rather better Supery Sauvignon Blanc cancelled each other out in the wine-quality stakes.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10

And then, and finally for this instalment, we went for lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf, at Nonna Rose. Crab is the thing to have here, so I had ½ a Dungeness version, beautifully steamed and simply served with warm butter, a bowl of tinned clam chowder, and a bib. It was glorious, though at $15 odd dollars for a small half, it should have been. Anchor Steam (my new favourite beer) was terrific alongside. Cute Letts went for a crab and prawn Louie – essentially a giant, uninteresting salad with very nice fish and a mediocre prawn cocktail sauce. It hit the spot without being particularly brilliant.

If you must go to Fisherman’s Wharf (and I suppose you must, even though it’s tatty and overpriced) I should think you could do a lot worse. Thankfully, the rest of our trip was full of extraordinary culinary highs. They’re coming up in part two...

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10

Nonna Rose on Urbanspoon