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.

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

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Spuntino, 61 Rupert Street, Soho

Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, the brains behind Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino and shortly, Da Polpo, are good at promotion. I liked Spuntino before I’d even been, charmed by innumerable positive blog posts, my previous experiences of Polpetto, and the proprietors’ considerable Twitter charm (Twarm, I suppose). 

I loved that it’s on Rupert Street in the proper, seedy bit of Soho. I loved that it’s a sit-at-the-bar style, American-influenced place. I loved the mac and cheese on the menu. So, I’d more or less made up my mind that when I could get a seat at Spuntino, it would be good.

And so it was, sort of. The room is wonderful. It’s a tarted up old bath house, by the looks of it, with one wall seemingly original - slightly scruffy and full of filthy stories. The bar where we sat is charming; the drinks American-influenced and heavy on the Bourbon. It’s an excellent impression of a movie fantasy of an American dive.

The food’s good too. After chilli popcorn as a complimentary snack, a beef and bone marrow slider was generous and comforting, far better than the last slider I ate. Its mackerel counterpart could have been a step too far, but delivered a minty, fishy punch that I loved. 

Soft shell crab was a little bland and grimly presented. Tabasco mayonnaise didn’t really kick like you’d hope, while fennel lacked crunch and zing. Chopped salad with a light, Caesar-style dressing proved a more willing partner. 


Mac and cheese, on the other hand, was terrific, a dirty, cheap, creamy, calorific delight. Served piping hot, it carried on cooking in its skillet at the table, leaving crunchy, burnt treats round the edge of the pan. It would be a perfect dish for local workers, lunching or grabbing a hearty snack between exertions. Loud conversations between waiting staff about the rubbish films they’d seen recently didn’t quite ruin the effect. 

Lastly, we shared a brown sugar cheesecake. As Mick Jagger once sang of something entirely different: “Ah, brown sugar, how come you taste so good?” It’s a fair question, and I expect the answer had something to do with the beautiful syrup on top and fat prunes. 

But despite all this tastiness, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that there’s something a little bit phoney about Spuntino, like it’s going through the motions. It feels cynical - too professional, perhaps, and without the love that Polpetto exudes.

At less than £20 per head with a bottle of sparkling water, I should imagine it’s a good bit cheaper than other places in the area, but then, many of those don’t sell food.

Phil Letts’ take: 7/10

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

St John Hotel, 1 Leicester Street, Soho

Manzi’s was the first posh restaurant I ever went to. The year was something like 1990, I was eight or so, and we were up in town to have lunch and see Les Miserables. I don’t remember much about the meal, but I definitely enjoyed it, for how grown-up it made me feel and for the inklings it gave of another world, full of pleasure and ritual and butter. I think I had some sort of white fish with a creamy sauce – possibly turbot, possibly champagne-based. Though my memories are faint, I have long seen that trip as a kind of beginning: of a love affair with good cooking; of a fondness for tradition in food and history in restaurants; of a life-long tendency to overspend on eating out; and of complete incomprehension of musical theatre. 

When Manzi’s closed its doors for the final time in 2006, it had been serving seafood in Soho for 78 years. It’s difficult to imagine any new restaurant enjoying that kind of longevity in London again. But with St. John Hotel, on the old Manzi’s site just off hellish Leicester Square, owners Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver promise to give it a good go.


We went for lunch the day before Easter, when London was hot and empty. A cool dining room was sparsely populated, peaceful and, for those who know the other restaurants in the group, comfortingly familiar. 

I started with lamb sweetbreads, butter beans and wild garlic, a friendly mixture of thick, beany stock and sweet offal. It was marvellous, almost conspiratorial, the kind of dish you’d sooner run away with than share. £8.20 is hardly cheap, but when something is a good as this, almost any price would represent a good deal.

Another starter, of potted pigeon with quince and toast, didn’t quite reach the same heights, but it was still superbly fatty, peppery and lumpy. 


For mains, we ordered ‘Snails & bacon’ and ‘Broad beans, artichoke and Berkswell.’ Now, I’m not normally one for vegetarian main dishes, but with broad beans so smooth and artichoke so delicately fennelly, this was a great option. Berkswell cheese, grated on top and mixed through, brought everything together in a messy, brilliant mesh. 

And then snails and bacon. Until this point of the meal, I thought St. John Hotel was doing a competent impression of St. John – were that the case, it would still be a far better restaurant than most. But the snails and bacon were better than anything I’ve eaten at St. John, or at St. John Bread & Wine. Frankly, they were better than most things I’ve eaten. The snails, braised in cider, stood out sweet and tender against luscious, caramel, smoky bacon chunks and soft, sweet shallots. Underneath it all, a thick piece of fried bread soaked up the liquor, rewarding every mouthful with satisfying crunch. I’d return for this dish alone, day after day, if I could, and I don’t care that it cost £19. After all, that’s the same price as Behind the Black Door, Sarah Brown’s Downing Street memoir. 

Desserts maintained the ridiculously high standard. An enormous piece of custard tart featured gravity-defying, crème brulee-like custard dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. This was so good it was almost moving (or at least, when it was finished, I nearly cried). 

And as a final flourish, a bitter chocolate ice cream. In Nose to Tail Eating (my favourite cookbook of all time), Fergus Henderson admitted that he had yet to achieve or even eat the kind of chocolate ice cream he wanted. Well that was then. I don’t know if Mr. Henderson likes head-chef Tom Harris’s version, but it was certainly the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever tasted. 

A glass each of the excellent house white and a couple of coffees brought the total bill to £86 for two. St. John Hotel is not cheap, but it’s better than, say, Dinner by Heston (which was really great), and therefore good value in my book. I can’t remember having enjoyed a meal so much in London, and I didn’t even have to sit through a musical afterwards.

Phil Letts’ take: 10/10

St. John Hotel on Urbanspoon