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.

Monday, 28 February 2011

York & Albany, 127-129 Parkway, Regents Park

What’s the difference between a chef renowned for great skill and another known for great swearing? One’s a cordon bleu chef, and the other’s a blue Gordon chef.

No? Nothing? Come on, I spent thirty seconds of my life coming up with that.

Fine, let’s just forget about it.

Anyway, I recently went to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant for the first time. I don’t mean he cooks there – that would be ridiculous – but his name is on the menu and the website, so it counts. And I say it was my first time at Gordo's, but that ignores the trip I made to Plane Food (geddit?) in Heathrow a year or so ago - a trip best ignored. So, more accurately, this was my first trip to a restaurant that bears Gordon Ramsay’s name but at which he doesn’t cook, apart from the other trip I made to such a restaurant, which I won’t talk about because it wasn’t very good.

The York & Albany is a charming pub-come-restaurant at the apex of busy streets in that nowhereland north of the Marylebone Road but south of Camden. It’s a lovely looking place, with glinting mirrors, lustrous carpets and a perfectly decent bar to sit alongside the restaurant.

Four of us went for Sunday lunch, and ordered relatively unimaginatively I’m afraid. There’s an excellent value three-course menu for £21, available every day of the week, which increases by a fiver if you include a Sunday roast. It looked pretty good, and when my chicken liver and foie gras parfait with quince chutney arrived, it felt like it too. This was delicious, sweet and rich, though the texture was rather too glossy for my taste, even if the dish was lifted by excellent, crunchy croutons.

Everyone else went for smoked haddock and horseradish scotch eggs with tartare sauce. These were good too, with an oozing yolk counterpointing the sharpness of the fish and crunchy fried breadcrumbs giving a reminder that, just because something has healthy ingredients, it isn’t necessarily good for you. 

For mains, we all went for the roast beef sirloin. This was fine, but not spectacular. Beautifully cooked and nicely fatted, it looked the part but suffered from an odd lack of flavour, like an imitation of excellent beef rather than the real thing. Accompanying Yorkshire puddings were a treat, and far better than the equivalent chez Blumenthal. Vegetables were basic and decent, though there is a balance to be stuck between presenting vegetables so they look rustic and earthy, and just not peeling carrots. I’d err towards over-elegance in this instance, not least because unpeeled carrots often taste a little bitter. A bottle of Puglian Primitivo made an excellent accompaniment, predictably, for about £25. 

We were pretty full after this lot, so only one of us (me, obviously) managed dessert - a wonderful dark chocolate ganache with caramelised bananas and honeycomb. This dish was a joyful array of sweet and crunch – a comforting, childish dessert for grown-ups. 

I enjoyed the York & Albany immensely. Head chef Colin Buchan is doing a fine job in the enormous shadow of his boss. But there was something slightly unsatisfying about it. It’s extremely competent, but not quite brilliant – lots of style but not quite enough substance. Still, it’s well worth a visit.

Phil Lett’s take: 7/10

York & Albany on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial Street, Spitalfields

They say that in the land of the hungry, the one-Hawksmoored man is king. They’re wrong. That’s why I’m reviewing my second Hawksmoor of the last few months. I enjoyed my November visit to the Seven Dials site so much that the decision to try the Spitalfields branch for a Sunday birthday brunch more or less (actually, less) made itself. 

At £35 for two to share, rather than £30 as advertised online at the time, the Hawksmoor brunch is pricey. But when you see what’s in it, suddenly things don’t seem too bad. It’s a hymn to overindulgence, a glorious platter of trotter this, blood that, with more meat than you can shake a stick at (if you shake sticks at things) and just enough vegetable to keep you feeling a tiny bit virtuous. A Bloody Mary and a coffee are not included, but should be obligatory for any right-thinking bruncher.

Three types of sausage – mutton, pork and beef – are large, juicy and suitably animal, perfect for scooping up beans and smothering with tasty HP, onion and bone marrow gravy. Black pudding more than does its earthy job, while bubble and squeak is, in an excellent way, ballast. 


When I rule the world, I shall make it compulsory to serve grilled bone marrow with everything. Hawksmoor does, near enough, and the bone marrow in the brunch is predictably sensational. As are the ‘trotter baked beans’, which combine a slightly spicy tang with grimy, glutinous undercurrents.

As for the more common fried breakfast elements, they’re good too, especially a hulking bacon chop that melts in the mouth and salts the palette. The dripping toast is excellent, though rather more limited than its unlimited billing might suggest. You have to ask every time you want more, and the service is, shall we say, casual - we only managed one toast replenishment in a hour. 

Indeed, that’s probably the main criticism of brunch at Hawksmoor. Yes it’s Sunday, and yes, people expect a more relaxed atmosphere, but when it takes several attempts and many minutes to have a waiter fill up water glasses (they should just put a jug on the table), it’s probably gone too far. It would also be nice if the brunch came with a tea or coffee – everyone’s going to order them, and it seems mean to increase the cost of an already expensive meal any further. These are quibbles though. Hawksmoor is a fantastic restaurant with a fantastic brunch. I'll be going again.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Hawksmoor on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Tamarind, 20 Queen Street, Mayfair

It’s odd to think that Tamarind is now 16 years old. It's a proper milestone, like taking your first steps, or gaining your 200th Twitter follower (thanks @idso). This Michelin-starred Indian restaurant was one of the first in London to combine the virtues of curry house and haute cuisine. Its unassuming Mayfair frontage disguises an old-school formality in the dining room, pitched somewhere between Le Gavroche and the Bengal Lancer. 

A party of about 20, we went for the set lunch menu. Because of the numbers, the restaurant was happy to provide sharing plates, meaning everyone was able to try everything, rather than confine themselves to a single starter and main. Add in a reasonable deal on price (it’s normally £27.50 per head for the three-course lunch menu, but we paid less as part of an offer), superb, accommodating service, and it seems like all the nuts and bolts of a decent dining experience are in place.

But what about the food? Well, unlike most 16 year olds, Tamarind seems happy with what it’s got. A starter of spiced chickpeas and cucumber with sweetened yoghurt, tamarind chutney, fresh coriander and blueberries was as delicious as the day I first tried it about six years ago. The slight sourness of the yoghurt dominates but never overwhelms the fruity flavours of the rest of the dish, while chickpeas maintain just the right integrity to feel integral. It’s an excellent dish.

Crab and sweetcorn cakes with berry chutney are good too, though lacking in depth. Like most good dishes, it makes a virtue out of recognisable component parts: you can taste every flavour separately and together. But ultimately, it’s a little dull – too conservative in this most Tory part of London.

The third of the starters promises much. The menu has it as ‘salad of spice roasted duck breast with kumquat, peppers, salad leaves and avocado; in an orange and chaat masala dressing.’ While I’m sure this description is technically accurate, it oversells what is at heart some sweetened bits of duck breast on some salad. It’s pretty bland, and disappointing.

After these slightly uninspiring offerings, most of the mains delight. Tandoor-grilled monkfish comes rubbed in coriander, lime leaf, green chilli and (the menu says) gram flour. It’s the dish of the day, stunningly meaty, subtley yet zestily flavoured and sweet, rich and tangy in equal measure. The lime leaf works especially well, highlighting at once the spice of the chilli and textural luxury of the meat. 

A chicken thigh with onion, tomato, ginger and fenugreek is another triumph. Meltingly well-cooked chicken gives a juicy hit, while the other flavours surround and occasionally subdue it. It’s wonderful. 

I’ve always liked the sound of nigella seeds (imagine what you could grow with those!), so I’m delighted to find they accompany baby aubergines in the third main course. This works well and best as a side dish, so that’s how we treat it. Along with excellent yellow lentil daal, surprisingly pedestrian Indian gherkins and a saffron basmati rice, the aubergine is decent enough.

Crispy, light and airy naan are as good as those at Dishoom. That’s very good, by the way.

A final offering of Masala tea and ginger ice cream with stewed prunes is another enjoyable dish, though by this stage, I’ve eaten so much of other people’s lunches that I’m too full to really enjoy it. 

Tamarind is a decent restaurant and, at lunchtime prices, it’s well-priced. But while the food is good, it feels oddly dated, a relic of an era when London diners were happy with less. At lunch on a Friday, there’s almost no one in the restaurant; and in hedge-fund paradise, that seems pretty ominous. It could do with an injection of energy to complement the undoubtedly competent kitchen. Perhaps what it really needs is a healthy dose of teenage rebellion.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10

Tamarind on Urbanspoon