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 March 2011

The Dock Kitchen, 344 Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Docks

You know the kind of people who collect trainers? Those people who surf eBay for original Air Jordans, grow scraggy beards as soon as they are able and generally annoy everybody by being younger, thinner and so very much cooler than everyone else? They’re not quite hipsters, though they’re not dissimilar. They tend to have real jobs, normally in advertising or (well-paid) charity, and a love of tight woolly hats. You’ve probably heard them, aged 27, with their dubstep. 

The Dock Kitchen feels screamingly in love with this kind of customer. Above a fancy furniture shop? Check. On the canal? Check. In a not-particularly-but-still-a-bit edgy area? Check. A former pop-up that became permanent? Check. Pretentious, self-indulgent, haphazard menu? Check. Really good food? Um, yes.

And that’s the problem with The Dock Kitchen. Despite every cell in my body wanting to hate it - for its attractive waiting staff, its impossibly youthful team of chefs, for how pleased it is with itself - I just couldn’t.

‘Forced Scottish sea kale and agretti with bottarga’ was superb. Not just a little bit good, not just good because ambitious and unusual, but actively, challengingly excellent, all asparagus and coastline flavoured and saltily refreshing.


‘Egyptian’ garlic, roasted with thyme and served with goats curd on toast was similarly inspired. A ludicrously straightforward dish, it involved getting a long-roasted head of garlic out of the oven, drizzling it with olive oil, and spreading some curd on toast. In this instance, simplicity was a virtue. 

Main courses were less dazzling, but still pretty good. A fish stew of cod, octopus, red mullet and brown shrimp lacked a bit of oomph, despite its Vermentino and fennel. Chicken with a Persian pomegranate and walnut sauce proved a textural (though not a visual) delight, meltingly cooked with a slight crunch from the walnut. Alas, accompanying broad bean pods in tomato sauce were lukewarm and uninspiring. 

For dessert, a saffron rice pudding with blood orange combined sweet and bitter to great effect, while a Seville orange tart was competent rather than spectacular. Add a smart open kitchen, great lighting and engaging waiters to the mix, and this is a pretty winning operation, especially since they sell Paxtaran liqueur to finish. 


The kitchen seems to rely on food that requires very little cooking on the night – most dishes we ate would have been prepared earlier in the day. This allows the staff to maintain a sense of unflappable control without actually having to do all that much cooking. But you can hardly complain about a smart kitchen. After all, if there’s one thing any trainer hunter knows, it’s that it’s not cool to be seen to be putting any effort into anything.

Our a la carte meal came in at just over £40 per head for three courses with a glass of wine, a liqueur and coffee. For slightly more, you can eat the restaurant’s set menu, four or five courses that change, supperclub style, depending on the whims of the chef, or what punning title they’ve thought up this week.

The Dock Kitchen treads a fine line between making its customers feel trendy and causing them (or me, anyway) to harrumph curmudgeonly at the smugness of it all. But the food, which is always what these things come down to in the end, is good enough to pull it off.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Crab & Winkle, South Quay, Whitstable

I love the seaside in late winter. The coast has a kind of personality in wind and cloud that hordes of summer sunbathers just can’t match. Whitstable in March is not like Whitstable in July. It’s quieter certainly, colder too, but it seems to breathe more freely – the coast reasserting itself. 

We traipsed down on a rare midweek day off, with notions but no expectation of a last-minute table at The Sportsman. That wasn’t to be. No matter, Whitstable (or Crouch End on Sea, as it might be called) has plenty to offer apart from windswept pubs that aren’t really in Whitstable anyway.

Having attended last year’s oyster festival, I was familiar with the fishmonger that sits beneath The Crab & Winkle. Guessing that a restaurant above a fishmonger would be likely to serve good fish, in we went.

It took a while for the waitress to notice us, but we were eventually seated at a table with a sea view from a smallish window. The restaurant has a certain charm, but it’s nothing special to look at (like yours truly in those regards). Service is friendly but rather slow (ditto), while the atmosphere consists of a Kings of Leon album on repeat. I don’t know about you, but I can only hear that my sex is on fire so many times in one sitting before I feel like I should go to the doctors. 

But what about the food? Well, here’s where things improved. A ‘pre-starter’ of cockles was a nice touch, but at £3.10 for a plate that you could have got downstairs in a plastic pot for considerably less, felt a little pricey. 

Six native oysters followed, at £9.75. They tasted wonderful. Unfortunately, several were cut to mush inside, as if someone had shucked them with a hammer and chisel (I once used a screwdriver – not pretty).

Grilled sardines Provencal were rather better, sprawled across gooey red pepper and tomato. These were beautifully, simply prepared, fresh and very lightly charred. A perky red onion salad helped the dish along. We could almost have been in Provence, if Provence was about 15 degrees colder than it is, and if three sardines cost £6.70 there. Perhaps they do. 

My main, a special of whole brown crab at an intimidating £18, was outstanding. Smashing up crustaceans is a rare pleasure, one of the few times when adult men really get to mess around with their food. I took full advantage, cracking claws, sucking legs, crushing shell and at times, even eating. It was marvellous. 

Cute Letts went for beer battered fish and chips at £14.50. That’s right. Cod and chips. For £14.50. Mushy peas cost an extra £3, bringing the total for fish, chips and peas to a whopping £17.50. 

It tasted great, but it bloody well should do at that price. Even Tom Aitkens’ ill-fated Chelsea fish and chip shop didn’t dare charge £17.50 for fish, chips and peas.

With a couple of bottles of gorgeous Whitstable brewery pilsner, a glass of white wine, and some horrible, bitter coffee, our bill came to £76, exclusive of service. The food at the Crab & Winkle is good, and at times even great, but there’s no way two courses (and a pre-starter) should cost nearly £40 per head. Yes, there’s a cheaper lunch menu option, and yes, the oysters were the priciest starters (though the crab was nowhere near the most expensive main), but really, £76 is a joke. It’s a shame.

Phil Letts' take: 5/10

Crab and Winkle on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Seafood Training at Billingsgate Fish Market

What better gift for an afishionado than a day learning about the salty wonders of London’s greatest market? As Christmas presents go, this was a good one.

We made our way to Billingsgate not so bright and fairly early one Saturday morning, to the Billingsgate Seafood Training School,  on the promise of learning about fish, cutting fish up, cooking fish and finally, taking fish home with us. It sounded promising.

Because it was a Saturday, and because of the comparatively late start (the market begins to wind down at about 7.30), there was no scope to explore the various stalls. Billingsgate is a wholesale market, and most of its business is in selling volume to trade, but some sellers will allow smaller purchases, so it’s well worth going along nice and early if you want some of the freshest fish you’re likely to find in London.

The course was divided into two. Our first session would be dedicated to learning about fish: how to spot the freshest, best quality, how to prepare them, how to tell if someone’s trying to rip you off, and what types of tools to use for the job. The second would be a cookery class.

I won’t go through everything we learnt, principally because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that decides to attend. But after skinning coley fillets, gutting all kinds of fish, filleting a bream and pocketing a plaice (the results of pocketing are pictured below), I felt significantly wiser and far handier with a knife than I had before. And if I ever spot suspiciously white squid in a fishmongers, or dull-eyed mackerel, or lumpy, oddly over-slimed fish, I’ll know to avoid it. Understanding something about seasons for different types of fish will no doubt prove useful as well.


The great thing about this part of the course was that, for the most part, much of it was not completely new information. The techniques you learn are refinements of things you sort of know, or perhaps suspect, about how you should prepare fish. It’s not like, say, the butchery course at The Ginger Pig; seafood training teaches you things that you can use as a matter of routine, and with relative ease. Far from making the course less attractive, its practicality improves it. These are things you won’t forget how to do, but which will save you from spending an age hacking your fish to pieces in lieu of filleting it, or ruining it by freezing it the wrong way, or cutting through bones rather than around them.

After a generous couple of hours getting our hands all fishy, we moved to the cookery section of the course. This involved some hands-on preparation (with prawns, mussels and squid) and more tidbits of information about how to treat your fish. Mostly though, the second session was a demonstration, of recipes for a gorgeous laksa, lemon sole with beurre noisette, and various uses of the pocket in our plaice. Of the two halves, this was perhaps slightly less interesting, mainly because the recipes and demonstration were quite straightforward. We didn’t learn that much. That said, we did get to eat all the dishes. They were delicious, especially that lemon sole. 

Unfortunately, my photos mostly had to be taken at home, of the things we got to take away with us (coley, seabass, sea bream and plaice), simply because it’s quite difficult to operate a mobile-phone camera when your hands are covered in fish. We’ve been eating them since, in one form or another.

At £100 pounds for a course that lasts about 5 and a half hours, this is a decent deal, given you leave with about £30 of fish. But I think I’d try and do it midweek in the future; then, you get an earlier start and a tour of the market thrown in. CJ Jackson and her team are welcoming and patient teachers, and if you follow their instructions, you needn’t even smell that bad afterwards.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge

Cooking and writing are similar in lots of ways. Good writing, like good cooking, requires a deep understanding of its various component parts – not only the selection of words or ingredients, but their interplay, their correspondences, their echoes and their history. Coleridge said that a good writer (Samuel Johnson, in his example) produces prose in which ‘you cannot alter one conjunction without spoiling the sense.’ Spoiling is culinarily apt, as is what follows: ‘It is a linked strain throughout.’ If good writing means that every word, every clause and every sentence counts, then good cooking might require similar strains of thought and conjunctions between ideas. 

Heston Blumenthal is a master of making things count. There is never anything extraneous in his dishes. And if that sounds odd in reference to a man who’s developed television programmes almost wholly about ornament in cooking, then, well, you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV. 

Consider ‘Meat Fruit (c.1500)’, our opening course at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. A much-admired chicken liver parfait encased in a mandarin jelly, it could serve as an emblem of all that’s great about Blumenthal’s cooking (though, let’s not forget, Ashley Palmer-Watts is the head chef here, even if it’s not his name on the menu). It’s a gimmick, certainly. But then you need the sharp jelly to cut through the luxurious paté. And there’s more to it than that. This is a funny dish (funny ha ha, but also strange), that confounds your sensory expectations in the disjunction between its appearance, texture and taste. You know, as you cut into the orange globe, that it’s not a real mandarin, and yet you still expect the skin to be tough. It’s like getting on a stationary escalator and adjusting your step anyway, if a lot nicer. 

But there’s more to it than that too. Meat Fruit drags back through culinary history to medieval banqueting tables, but also alludes to other kinds of culinary illusion. Blumenthal’s admiration for Lewis Carroll is well known, and this dish could have come from Wonderland, with its tricksy pills and mock turtles. Its slightly risqué title adds crude humour, while the 'mandarin' pokes gentle fun at the restaurant's host.

Roast Marrowbone (c.1720) provides fewer laughs, though that circa seems amusingly optimistic. Even so, it is similarly confounding, with rich marrow sat louchely among assertive anchovy, mace and parsley. You expect it to be heavy, but it’s light; you expect it to be meaty, which it is, but it’s also refreshing. There’s even a hint of the Danish school – it looks and tastes like something you could have at North Road or, dare I say it, Noma (I’ve never been). 

Many reviewers have done down the main courses at Dinner, at least by comparison with those remarkable starters. That’s unfair. Roast Turbot (c.1830) picks up where the marrow left off, but like any good story, expands and develops the promise of its introduction. This was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. Its ‘cockle ketchup’ is another nice joke, but again, delivers in flavour to the extent that the dish is inconceivable without it. Bitter, sweet and sour, with a very slightly gelatinous texture, it tastes of the sea and the kitchen – a marriage of craft and raw materials that would have impressed those emerging industrialists around at its birth.

Spiced Pigeon with Ale and Artichoke (c.1780) is positively conventional by comparison, proving that excellent artists can always do the simple as well as the complex. The pigeon is perfectly cooked, while the ale seems to hark back to 18th century taverns or rather grander hunting lodges. Of course, it’s also there because it tastes good and because ale is becoming more trendy by the day. It might be slightly weaker than the other dishes, though that reflects more on them than on it. 

An English cheese board to share does exactly what it should, though it must be said that it’s rather foisted upon us by an up-selling waiter. It’s an unfortunate trait of the restaurant, this tendency to make you feel like a lesser diner if you don’t have champagne before you start, or you don’t want cheese, or you ask for tap water (we had the champagne, the cheese and the tap water, but we probably would have done even without the pushiness). Indeed, were the food less brilliant, this would be a serious problem. 

Desserts mark a return to the humour of the starters. Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830) is yeasty and unsettling, but it’s utterly delicious. Taffety Tart (c.1660) contains a chewy, rosy jelly bracketed by crispy, fennely caramel and enhanced by cream and a truly superb blackcurrant sorbet. Variants of texture, taste, temperature and even tone need to be in concert for this to work. It coheres perfectly. 

Finally, an earl grey and white chocolate ganache comes with a stick of shortbread. This, like the Meat Fruit, asks you to suspend your disbelief. You know roughly what’s in it, and you know what you think it’s going to taste like. And then it does, but more so, with more tea and more chocolate than seems possible – it’s a high wire act, a magic trick. 

Of course, all this costs a lot – about £100 per head including a bottle of Fleurie. But if you’re going to spend £100 pounds on anything, make it Dinner. Coleridge said that prose is ‘words in their best order,’ while poetry is ‘the best words in their best order.’ Heston Blumenthal is a poet of the table.

Phil Lett’s take: 8/10

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon