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, 28 January 2011

Hummus Bros, 37-63 Southampton Row, Holborn

One of the pitfalls of writing a food blog is that it mercilessly exposes personal taste. It’s easy enough to be objective about places if you’re a professional reviewer – after all, it’s not your money you’re spending, and there’ll always be another meal to try if this one doesn’t work out. But bloggers need deep pockets, or they need to be selective. And you (well, I) tend to select restaurants where you’re confident your money won’t be wasted, and where you’re comfortable you know what you’re talking about. So this blog is full of nice Italian restaurants, carnivores’ paradises and curry houses.

It’s unlikely I’d review a place like Hummus Bros unless I was invited (i.e. not paying). I like hummus as much as the next man (I quite like it), but it has too many negative associations for me to want to go to a restaurant dedicated to it. I’m not an over-gassy hippy, and nor do I want to be.

So, while it might not surprise you to discover that Hummus Bros is really rather good, it surprised me.

The evening was a meet-and-schmooze for bloggers. After leafing our way through the slight silly menu – 13 pages elaborating every single dish followed by one page with the actual menu on it – I ordered a main of fava beans, and some tabouleh. My guest went for a chunky beef main with a side of falafel salad. Some excellent pitta bread completed our food order.

Main dishes come surrounded by a palisade of hummus. It’s good hummus, but there’s far too much of it – a pot’s worth on the regular plates, I’d guess. My fava beans were salty and earthy, slathered in olive oil and extremely tasty. A long-boiled egg on top packed a rich and slightly smoky punch.

The beef chunks were slow-cooked and carried an intense tomato flavour, while the tzatziki that came with them was fiercely garlicky. Hummus made a relatively neutral contribution to both dishes, though it should be noted that stewed fava beans and pureed chickpea make for eloquent bowels.

The tabouleh was ok, but without the kind of zip the best versions have. Thankfully there was a bottle of lemon juice on the table, which perked it up quite a bit. Falafel was the only real disappointment of the evening – far too dry for my taste, though the salad it sat on was better.

I’d never had aloe vera juice before, but I’m a fan now. It initially tastes oddly like bubblegum, but then, for reasons inexplicable, keeps drawing you in to have more. Little chunks of the plant float around the drink nicely; it’s thirst-quenching and intriguing. Ginger and mint lemonade was another triumph.

For dessert, I had cheeky little Baklava. Nutty, syrupy and extremely sweet, these were exactly as they should be. My guest meanwhile went for the extraordinary Malabi. It’s a milk pudding very like panna cotta, but served with a terrific date honey, all dark thickness and bitter treacly flavour. At £1.50 a pop, this is ridiculously good, and ridiculously good value.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about Hummus Bros is its price (though I didn’t pay for this meal). Our main, side, drinks, desserts and espressi would have come to about £23 pounds between the two of us. You could have a very decent lunch here for about £7. The restaurant is friendly and comfortable, and you can imagine a roaring takeaway lunch trade makes up for the odd quiet evening. As a convenient and economical option with often excellent food, it comes highly recommended.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10 

Hummus Bros on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 January 2011

Thomson Airways, 30,000 ft above Northern Europe

Take a close look at that picture. Go on, take a real good look. Note especially the shapes, the surfaces. Imagine the texture of those items. There’s that rubbery egg, bouncy and hard; the mushy tomato, compounding its lack of flavour with a lack of body; slab-like bubble and squeak; and most evilly of all, that pasty, textureless, shiny sausage. 

How do airlines do it? How do they manage to make food so preternaturally awful? How do Thomson get away with charging £6 per meal for something that you wouldn’t give to a lion that would eat you if you didn’t, for fear of insulting the king of the jungle?

For the record, this ‘breakfast’ tasted worse than it looks. Or rather, the bits that tasted of anything at all tasted worse than they look. Mercifully, the egg and sausage, beyond a vague salty aura, tasted precisely of nothing. The tomatoes, by way of contrast, were somehow synthetic, recalling cheap service station ketchup more than anything else. But even that’s not quite right; in truth, they tasted wholly, almost proudly, of themselves. It’s not a good taste, I assure you. Bubble and squeak at least had a faint whiff of something vegetable about it - very faint, though. Flaccid fruit and a cup of orange juice were better, but not by much.

Thankfully, we had also booked a meal for our return flight, so I was able to sample the delights of dinner too. A pasta salad tasted like sculpted wallpaper paste. More sausages were awful. Onion gravy was pretty bad. Leek mash was pointless and dry. Oddly, and brilliantly, all this was accompanied by some absolutely delicious peas, of the sort you find in France, sweet and moreish. A bread roll made me feel sick. And I couldn’t bear the thought of trying dessert.

That this dinner came unaccompanied by any drink apart from tea/coffee seemed a little stingy, but I suppose when you’re charging for drinks, it makes sense to only give away stuff that makes people thirsty.

Thomson Airlines meals should not be eaten by anyone, ever. To endure one is akin to having your hand slowly crushed in a vice; eating two is for the most hardcore of masochists. Absolutely revolting.

Phil Letts’ take: 1/10 (for the peas)

Thursday, 13 January 2011

North Road Restaurant, 69-73 St John Street, Farringdon

Sometimes, it’s the little things that count. In many ways, my meal at North Road was the most exciting of last year. The food is ambitious and precisely executed, its flavours often complex yet completely comprehensible. It’s the mark of a very good restaurant to attempt so much without over complicating things or overwhelming customers. North Road should be a great success. 

So why then did I feel less than delighted with my visit just before Christmas? Well, there’s something not quite right. Three of us were sat in a section of the restaurant on our own, despite spare tables in the busier, larger dining room. After this slightly disconcerting start, things got odder.

North Road offers an excellent value lunch menu (3 courses for £20). It featured a lobster soup on the day we ate – a lobster soup that caught Cute Letts’ eye. The problem was, she didn’t want the rest of the menu, and the broth didn’t feature on the a la carte. So we asked, thinking it might be possible to pay an a la carte price (i.e. more) for this individual dish. It was not. Not only that, but the waitress could not have been less helpful about it. There was no asking the kitchen or the manager, no attempt to suggest an alternative from the a la carte, and not a whiff of geniality. Cute Letts was told to have the menu.

The service continued grumpily throughout. Wine waiters jumped up to refill glasses every time anyone had a sip, but didn’t smile once. There was a general sense that we were an annoyance to the front of house staff. It was annoying.

And it’s all so unnecessary. The food at North Road is, at times, jaw-droppingly good. The lobster soup, when it came, was umami heavy and intense with rich, dark flavour. Sweetbreads with milk skin and pickled elderberries were extraordinary – sweet offal, onions and sour notes with a smooth, slightly but nicely rubbery milk skin (it’s exactly what it sounds like). A smoked scallop and apple dish sparkled too (literally, with its glistening jelly topping). 

Mains were excellent as well. Cute Letts’ plaice with salsify was as straightforward as things get here, and good with it. I had mutton loin, with a powerful smoked onion puree and crispy onion ring, atop a wild cabbage broth. It was muscular and unapologetically macho, but as a combination of textures and intriguing, deep flavours, it could hardly have been bettered. 

The pick of the bunch though, was venison loin with beetroot. The loin, rolled in burnt hay ash, had that perfect tenderness that comes with sous vide cooking, while beetroot added to the picture as well as the taste. Smoked bone marrow was dotted hither and thither, counterpointing and enhancing the blood flavoured meat.


Dessert maintained the quality and inventiveness. Jerusalem artichokes, sunflower seeds and smoked ice cream all made appearances, but without any of them feeling out of place. Liquorice and caramel textures provided a highlight. So did comice pears with the aforementioned ice cream and sunflower. 

Chef Christoffer Hruskova is going to impress a lot of people with this brave new venture. The cooking was truly dazzling, and at about £50 pounds per head a la carte with wine, it’s not a bank-breaker. But they do need to work on the service.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10 (though probably 9 for food alone)

North Road on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray

Every truly brilliant chef faces a choice sooner or later: refine, improve and experiment by focussing on what already exists; or expand, whether in the form of more restaurants, more TV appearances, more endorsements or more cookbooks. Most try to tread a middle path, wary of Gordon Ramsay-like dilution of standards and public profile on the one hand, and becoming the answer to a quiz question that nobody’s ever asked on the other. 

Heston Blumenthal ran The Fat Duck in Bray for several years before he had any significant personal profile. During that time, those lucky enough to attend the restaurant spoke in tones of bemused awe when asked to describe it, as perplexed by the dishes as they were delighted. The Fat Duck is still an unutterably glorious restaurant, with a menu that perfectly combines high magic and low wit. But this is not a review of that, so to the point...

After that initial period of propelling British cooking to previously unknown heights, Blumenthal expanded his portfolio. Rather than go big and brash, he took over a pub just down the road from The Fat Duck, promising old classics cooked brilliantly, with occasional modern twists if and when it aided the flavour. So far, so low key. When it opened, the Blumenthal Hinds Head seemed to have everything right, from the spectacular quail’s-egg-scotch-eggs in the bar, to the marvellous steak and kidney pudding in the restaurant. It very nearly managed to disguise itself as a proper pub too, especially if you were fortunate to bag a table downstairs, in sight of the bar.

Since then, the Blumenthal empire has continued to grow. Heston is on TV more or less every week, he’s producing cookbooks by the series, he’s revamped the Little Chef in public, he’s made an expensive Christmas pudding, and he’s about to open a massive restaurant in Knightsbridge. And you can hardly blame him for that. He clearly deserves every reward, if only for being the absolute best chef around. But...

The Sunday before Christmas, I had an unsettling experience. I had a meal at a Heston Blumenthal eatery that wasn’t excellent. Indeed, elements of it were no more than adequate.

My ham hock and foie gras terrine proved a case in point. It was decent enough, though the primal flavour of the foie gras was entirely overwhelmed by the ham, to the point where ‘foie gras’ looked suspiciously like menu dressing, rather than adding anything desirable to the dish. Cute Letts’ soused mackerel left a better impression, sharp and oily. 

The steak and kidney pudding remains, and remains excellent, but the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were both pretty disappointing. The beef could have come from most carvery trolleys in the country, while the Yorkshire was dry and larger than necessary. 

A joyous smoked chicken and mushroom pie made sure that Cute Letts stayed happy – small but perfectly formed, it looked liked the kind of dish you’d photograph for an advert. The smoked chicken taste was intense, while tarragon buzzed around the periphery most pleasingly.

Our final tablemate went for fillet steak on the bone, with a bone marrow sauce. This came pretty much as expected: very good, but not as good as Hawksmoor, though triple-cooked chips helped it along.

Dessert provided a highlight and a lowlight: my apple and blackberry crumble was beautifully sweet and tangy, with crunchy crumble near-saturated with butter and sugar, and bubbling, sticky fruit; Cute Letts’ rhubarb trifle just didn’t match up, drenched as it was with unadvertised rosewater flavour. When will people realise that rosewater’s disgusting? No one really likes Turkish delight, do they? 

Now I’m not saying that Heston Blumenthal has allowed himself to be distracted from his primary business (serving food to paying guests) by all the fame and all the tie-ins. That would be premature. But The Hind’s Head felt neglected just before Christmas. The awful upstairs seating could have been a Beefeater, given a salad bar, and this is surely not the aim, even allowing for Blumenthal’s love of all things nostalgia. The food, though generally fine, was simply not up to the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect from his restaurants. At £250 for four including wine, it needs to be better. For about half the price, you can and should go to The Magdalen Arms in Oxford.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10
Hinds Head on Urbanspoon