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And then of course, there's the grouse. To say I'm obsessed with these funky little game birds is an understatement - I will never pass on an opportunity to eat them, and no matter what the presentation, from the
On this occasion, we didn't have dessert, but I know from the Coach that Harris puts just as much effort into the pastry section as he does the savouries. Instead, we paid up - the bill inflated slightly by the £31 grouse but overall not an unreasonable amount of money for such quality - and jumped on the bus home.
It's inevitable given how brilliantly things have gone so far - though should be no less of an astonishing achievement nonetheless - that Harris & McCulloch already have their sights on a fourth branch of their... I hate calling it a chain but I suppose that's what it is now, albeit an extremely high-end one. Yes the next in the chain is to be the Harlot in Chiswick, of which details at the moment are scarce but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they'll serve high-end British/French gastropub cuisine in a lovely room, and it will be just as much fun as all the others. It's nothing short of incredible what these people are doing; ask anyone in the business and they'll tell you running one top gastropub is a constant battle, never mind four of the damn things at once. But if anyone can, these guys can. And we are all the richer for their efforts.
I should probably say up front, at the start of what will turn out to be a rather mediocre review, that of all the ultra-specialist Japanese restaurant types, I've always found okonomiyaki to be the least engaging. It's not that there's anthing particularly wrong about the combination of shredded cabbage, egg, bacon, mayonnaise and tamarind sauce (and whatever else you may find in there - okonomiyaki literally translating as "how you like"), it's just that I would seek my fill of kaiseki, yakitori, sushi, ramen, udon, soba and a few others, in that order, before I began to harbour a serious desire for cabbage omelette.
"But it's comforting, hangover food," I hear you say, "it's not supposed to be life-changing". Perhaps not. But it seems odd to me that Japan, a country that raises almost every aspect of eating out to an art form, would obsess (and they do obsess, based on the number of okonomiyaki joints I passed in Tokyo when I was there) on something so... well, ordinary.
It's also probably fair to say that to get the "full" okonomiyaki experience you need to be sitting around a hotplate with your dinner cooking in front of you - it's an interactive experience - and for various very sensible reasons this isn't possible at a popup in a café on Walworth Road. So, while the main events cooked backstage we got stuck into some starters, such as this very pleasant arrangement of pickled mushrooms and cucumber....
Fried lotus roots were greaseless and crisp, dressed in seaweed salt...
Japanese "tacos" were a bit wet and bland, but had a decent serving of fresh tuna so weren't a complete waste of time...
...and ssam short rib, Korean interlopers, had a lovely soft texture and plenty of flavour once paired with gochujang.
"Angry wings" were nice enough, certainly pretty heavy on the scotch bonnet, though could have done with a bit of a crisper skin. Also, rocket is the devil. But apart from that, fine.
After that, the okonomiyaki arrived. I have three photos here of the three different styles, but as you can tell, visually they weren't exactly distinctive so I'll leave you to decide which was which because I sure as hell have no idea myself. And it has to be said, they tasted pretty similar to eat too, despite one containing seafood, one involving beef & mustard, and one with pork and kimchi. This is probably largely to do with the fact that 90% of any okonomiyaki is egg and cabbage, dressed in mayo and tamarind sauce, and whatever else you add to the mix tends to get a bit lost. As I have mentioned, they were fine - not inedible, not wrong, just a bit underwhelming. And at £13/£14 a pop, not particularly good value either.
I should point out that by the time we left Louie Louie on that wet Thursday evening, every table in this attractive little space was taken, so there are clearly enough omelette fans in SE17 to make the numbers work - at least for now - and despite my own reservations, for this I'm glad. I may not have been bowled over myself, but anyone trying to do something a bit different, in an area of town that you'd usually only visit on the way to somewhere else, should be applauded. I doubt I'd be back, but if the idea of paying £12 for a cabbage omelette fills your heart with joy, well, you know where to go.
Summer must be a difficult time for soup-based restaurants. Their job is to persuade the general London public that what they really want for lunch during a record-breaking heatwave is to sit down in a darkened room to a huge, steaming bowl of hot liquid and not, I don't know, go for a bit of sushi and an ice cream in the park. For my own part, I'm quite happy to eat weather-inappropriate meals as long as the air conditioning is strong enough (I had a steak & kidney pudding at Holborn Dining Room when it was 32degC outside) but would I queue up for ramen at Kanada-Ya, or chicken noodle soup at Tongue & Brisket, if it was cracking the flags? Probably not.
So despite recommendations coming in thick and fast for Laksamania over the last few weeks, I couldn't really entertain the idea of eating there until the temperature fell to something below "existential global climate crisis" levels. Fortunately some time during the middle of August the heavens opened, and I trudged through a downpour to Newman Street, where a healthy mix of tourists and local workers had sheltered from the unfamiliar - though most welcome - weather.
The problem with reviewing ultra-specialist, one-dish restaurants isn't so much that it's unfair to draw conclusions about a place based on one menu item - I can hardly do much else - but that the resulting blog post feels a bit thin. But then perhaps not every post needs to be a dozen paragraphs musing on the infinite complexities of life; this is a laksa restaurant, serving laksa, and I think as long as I tell you what the laksa is like I could consider it Job Done.
So yes, the laksa is good. I went for the Ipoh (a city in northwest Malaysia) variation, which had a good satisfying thickness, plenty of fresh seafood, robust slices of salty roast pork and (because why the hell not) half a boiled egg. In the grand scheme of things I would say it's better than the version they serve at Rasa Sayang in Chinatown, though £5 more than that, but not quite as good as the Khow Suey in Gymkhana, and I know that's Burmese and not Malaysian but it's a fairly similar concept. Also, the Gymkhana one comes as part of a £40 lunch so you'd expect that to have a bit more about it. A more obvious a hit of sambal (I think that's how they make it) in the Laksamania version and you would have had a lot more reason to recommend it, but it's still a pretty decent way of spending your lunch money in Fitzrovia.
And so I didn't have to base a whole review on just one bowl of food, I ordered a few sticks of chicken satay, which arrived in a heavenly cloud of charcoal smoke with a good peanut dip. So no problems there either. And service was utterly charming, attentive and friendly and happy to let some tables to linger and chat while bringing out my own food at the same time as the bill, as requested. The "VIP discount", by the way, was the 50% off food soft launch offer, a complete surprise but good for them.
As the nights close in and the temperatures drop further, there's every chance Laksamania will find a healthy local audience, although it should be noted this is a tricky part of town. Just further up Newman Street is a site which used to be the excellent Newman Street Tavern, turned into the very good indeed Dickie Fitz and is now in the process of being converted into a Mr Fogg cocktail bar, so nothing's guaranteed. But they're doing what they do well, and with heart, and probably deserve more than a shortish blog post by someone who has hardly a second clue about Malaysian food and a brutal score out of ten. So why not just go and try it for yourself?
One of the many enduring mysteries of London dining, alongside the baffling popularity of the Breakfast Club and why hand wash and moisturiser are always presented in identical-looking containers, is why there seem to be so few genuinely excellent Korean restaurants. Much as I sort of enjoyed Asadal in Holborn, Assa in Soho and a couple of places in New Malden (I had a lovely meal at Jin Go Gae but it was a press dinner so not very representative), none have really blown me away and hardly any have warranted a return visit. Most of the Korean restaurants I've come across in London so far have been at best solid, with very similar, somewhat unambitious menus that never really offer great value for money. It speaks volumes that the best of the bunch is probably
What Korean food needs is perhaps what Silk Road does for Chinese food or Kanada-Ya does for Japanese - ultra specialisation on either one dish or one specific region. A restaurant that unapologetically offers a focussed, coherent vision of what the best Korean food should be, and pours its energies into making that one thing (or one style) as exciting as possible, without sacrificing anything to any notion of what London is "ready for" or what is least likely to offend. If London is anything it's a city of risk-takers, and - so far - Korean restaurateurs are yet to take advantage of that.
If it sounds like I'm building up to announce the discovery of a Korean Bao or Hoppers, well, I'm not. Sorry. Hana is fine in the way that most Korean restaurants in London are at least fine but it suffers from the same lack of ambition as so many others, and barely stands out from the crowd even on Battersea Rise, a road which contains such joys as "Café Rouge with a GCSE" Côte, dull-as-dishwater pan-Asian chain Banana Tree, and, yes, bloody Breakfast Club.
I was pleasantly surprised at first to see that Hana offer three different types of kimchee. I'm reliably informed (though have never been myself) that in Korea the best establishments offer a huge variety, with each restaurant fiercely proud - and protective - of its own particular way with fermented pickled cabbage. The standard kimchee at Hana was decent, though would have benefitted from a bit more of a chilli kick, but the "Kkak Du Gi" (radish) was pretty bland and uninspiring and the "Ohi kimchee" (cucumber) had a rather offputting fizz to it. Perhaps this was deliberate, and I'm showing my Korean food ignorance here, but it spoke of something less "fermented" than simply "gone off".
"Hana Sticky Chicken" should have been wonderful. In fact I don't know how you manage to cook fried chicken in a soy/chilli sauce and not have it be wonderful, but Hana managed it, ending up with a sweet, bland dressing that had plenty of empty chilli heat with none of the flavour. One day a dish called "sticky chicken" will end up tasting as good as it looks on paper, but this wasn't it.
Continuing the theme, "Soontofu Jigae" should be a rich, beguiling seafood soup/stew, powerfully seasoned with anchovy stock and packed full of interesting shellfish. How on earth this ended up with all the personality of tap water is a complete mystery - like Liberace's front room it had plenty of colour and no taste.
I should point out in fairness that my companion said she enjoyed her chicken bibimbap very much, and polished off most of it. But the one bit of cubed chicken breast I tried was unpleasantly dry, and I'm not sure in what reality cheap chicken, rice and chopped veg should cost £10.95. Even Asadal only charge £8.50 for theirs and they have Holborn rents to contend with.
Service eventually settled down but started weirdly. Two members of staff, chatting at the bar, saw me furiously signalling for a beer but instead of coming over themselves waited until a third person appeared from the back and got them to see what I wanted. At first I thought this was because those first couple of people weren't serving staff, but then one of them later brought me my Soontofu Jigae. So I don't know what was going on there, other than me feeling like I was a bit of an inconvenience.
It's doubly frustrating that Hana wasn't the Korean restaurant I'd been waiting for, not just because it's within walking distance of my house (though this in itself should have set alarm bells ringing; nothing good ever happens in Clapham Junction) but because I know Korean food can be so good. Ask anyone who's ever eaten in Korea, and they'll tell you the street food markets and Buddhist temple restaurants and seolleongtang (beef bone soup from an ancient recipe) stalls of Seoul are the stuff of dreams. The best KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) I've come across in London was a short-lived collaboration between Gizzi Erskine and the Soho branch of Tonkotsu, and lovely though it was, it's a pretty clear sign that the Korean foodies of London need to seriously up their game. Come on guys, we're ready for you.
For as long as I've been writing this blog, and a good deal of time before that as well, major life landmarks - birthdays, house moves, graduations, separations and reunions - have been celebrated with a hearty meal. Depending on circumstance and budget these have been anything from a mixed grill at Tayyabs to a
Subject to the usual drifts and currents of the London restaurant world, Pearl eventually closed, and Jun Tanaka became better known for a street food venture called Street Kitchen which dotted about the place during the London Restaurant Festival, and of course his regular appearances on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen. Then finally in 2016, he got back in a real kitchen and opened the Ninth on Charlotte Street. Which brings us to today.
There are plenty of things about the way Tanaka is going about things at the Ninth that I remember from all those years ago in Holborn. There's the confident pasta section, involving ingredients you'd actually want to eat like langoustine and rabbit. There's the attitude of things like sea bass with Datterini tomatoes and cockles, or veal tongue tonnato, playing with Italian traditions but very much in his own style. But most importantly, there's that sense of excitement and fun, in everything from the food to the service, that just makes you want to work through every item on the menu and then come back for more.
We started with oysters, because we could, and everytime we can start with oysters, we do. They were lean and fresh, with an interesting vaguely Asian ginger vinaigrette, and though they didn't really need the crisp shallots on top it didn't do any harm either.
Flamed mackerel also had an international feel - dill, cucumbers and capers are recognisably Northern European but the way the fish was presented, sliced into bitesize strips and with a spatula to serve, felt like the kind of thing they'd do in Chinatown. It tasted great as well, the mackerel being just smoked enough from the grill and the flesh irresistibly plump.
Equally great was beef cheek with oxtail consommé, the beef so tender and ribboned with fat it was almost sausagey, and the consommé rich and complex, speaking of a broad knowledge of classical French techniques learned from people like Marco Pierre White and Phil Howard. Even the most skilled home cook would struggle to make a consommé like this; and why would you bother with all that anyway when there's someone ready to make it for you for a nominal £11.50 fee?
From here on, with Tanaka's authority over fine dining firmly re-established, the Ninth could do little wrong. The pasta courses were mini symphonies of flavour, firstly agnolotti of rabbit with livers (is there any more beautiful phrase than "rabbit with livers"?), studded with girolles and boasting pasta so silky and smooth it was almost ethereal.
Similarly these striking parcels of langoustine, jet-black with (presumably) squid ink and slick with a deeply satisfying Datterini tomato sauce. I don't care how spoiled you are for great pasta after braving the queues at Padella or the noisy tables at Fat Tony's, great pasta is great pasta and is always enough to make me smile.
Main course was a whole grilled seabass, skin crisp and flesh moist, surrounded by more of those punchy Datterini and a liberal scattering of plump cockles. Tanaka's background in classical techniques was again on show here, the dressing on the seabass in its own way just as impressive as the earlier beef consommé but a completely different style performing a completely different function. I guess the French do know something about food, after all.
Had the meal ended there the Ninth would have been heading for something approaching a perfect score, and yet sadly just a couple of sides and a dessert weren't quite up to the standard of what had come before. I still can't quite believe something called "Black truffle polenta, Comté and egg yolk" could somehow conspire to be disappointing but this needed a lot more cheese, a lot more truffle, a lot more flavour...
...pickled baby artichokes were nothing more than fine, with even the shaved parmesan being oddly muted...
...and most oddly of all, a tarte tatin was slightly sour and underpowered, needing far more sugar to reach that heavenly caramelised taste of the finest examples. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision by the Ninth; all I can say is I like my tarte tatins to contain so much sugar I'm at risk of getting Type 2 diabetes just being in the same room as one, and this was... well, it was disappointing to say the least. Looked pretty enough, though.
And all said and done, the odd mis-step aside (and I realise for tarte tatin fans one of those was quite a large mis-step), there's more than enough reason to spend your dinner money at the Ninth. As he did in Pearl a decade ago, Jun Tanaka infuses his menus with so much love, so many intriguing ingredients and impressive techniques, that it's almost impossible there won't be something on the menu that would have the same effect on you that the beef cheek consommé or the flame-grilled mackerel had on us. Namely, that as soon as it was all done, we wanted to come back as soon as possible and do it all again. And there's hardly any higher compliment than that.
I was invited to the Ninth and didn't see a bill. From a quick calculation it would have come to about £80/head including more than enough booze.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we thought we knew burgers. Available on every pub menu in Britain, not to mention all of the familiar international chains on every high street, they were as familiar to the average Briton as fish and chips or bacon sandwiches, a staple of the late-night kebab shop and Saturday afternoon back garden BBQ. Bun, minced beef, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, done. What's the big deal? What's the drama?
It took a wobbly streetfood van in the corner of a car park in Peckham in the summer of 2009 to wake us from our collective delusion. Britain had not, it turned out, actually known burgers. At all. Oh sure, we thought we had - we'd known things that looked like burgers, that had the vague form and texture of burgers, that were labelled as "burgers" on menus. But no, we hadn't ever known real burgers because here Yianni of the Meatwagon finally was to show us how it should be done, and how utterly misguided we were as a nation in thinking those sad, grey little piles of watery mince hiding inside floury bread rolls were anything approaching the real deal. No, the Meatwagon made real burgers, and a nation's eating habits were transformed.
The problem with the state of burgers in the UK pre-Meatwagon was that people thought they were already in their final form and never really put much of an effort into discovering they were wrong. And much can be said about the state of the country's Buffalo wings. Properly done, Buffalo chicken wings - named after the city of Buffalo in upstate New York and nothing to do with bison - are the ultimate American drinking food, the combination of spicy cayenne sauce (usually Frank's) cut with butter, crisp fried wings and fresh chunky blue cheese dip hitting all of the sour/sweet/hot/soft/crunch pleasure points. But order them from the majority of pubs and bars in the UK and you will be presented with chicken that has been any combination of smoked, grilled or baked, covered in anything from BBQ sauce to sweet chilli. And as for a decent blue cheese dip? Well, good luck with that. A trip to the Peckham "WingJam" last week confirmed the sad state of wing affairs in the capital - out of eight or so stalls, only one - from Brother Bird - were any good at all.
There are precious few wing specialists in London - and therefore the UK - offering anything approaching an acceptable product. My previous favourite was Orange Buffalo, who make probably the best blue cheese dip around, but their "Buffalo" sauce, nice though it is, is made using mango and is therefore non-standard. I'm a strong believer that you have to get the basic recipe correct first before experimenting with variations, and was happy to discover Wingmans (stupid name I know - should there be an apostrophe there? Why not Wing men?), newly installed on Kilburn High Road, seem to be playing things fairly straight. Frank's buffalo sauce, celery, blue cheese dip. Hopes were high.
First the good news, and it is very good news. The chicken wings themselves are basically perfect. Large, healthy looking things with a delicate fried crust, the flesh was moist and firm, and the sauce just exactly the right balance of tangy cayenne heat and dairy. Unfortunately (and it's a very big unfortunately) they'd seen fit to offer them with quite the worst "blue cheese" dip I'd come across outside of Domino's pizza, a horrid thin and artificial pile of gloop with no discernible texture and very little taste other than a faint note of chemical grease. The fact the same kitchen could make chicken wings so good and saw no issue in serving them with this travesty of a blue cheese dip is genuinely baffling. What were they thinking?
A couple of days before my trip up to Kilburn I'd found myself in the Temple Brew House, a friendly little spot near the office with an astonishing selection of draught beers. More out of hope than expectation I ordered their "Buffalo wings" and wasn't entirely surprised to discover they were disgusting - soggy, formless little things so overcooked they'd dissolved into mush, in an insipid "Buffalo" sauce that tasted more like Heinz tomato soup than anything involving Frank's Hot Sauce. However, bizarrely, the blue cheese dip they came with was wonderful - fresh and vibrant with huge chunks of blue cheese, it was everything a blue cheese sauce should be. Someone should get these guys together; with the Temple Brew house dip and the Wingmans chicken, they'd have an unbeatable combo. It would be like
Wingmans (I hate saying that word) also do the usual Asian-influenced variations. Shanghai Oriental was decent, with the same good chicken and addictive crunch of the Buffalo paired with ginger, spring onion and coriander. I've certainly had far worse. And "Jamaican Me Crazy" wings were certainly the advertised "HOT!" although I'd quite liked to have seen scotch bonnet chillis being used instead of red for extra Carribbean authenticity.
Truffle parmesan fries were good, although leaving the skins on always smacks slightly of laziness. And a bowl of "spicy Korean gochujang and sesame cucumbers" was underpowered, tasting of little more than rubbery cucumber. So yes, the sides need a bit of work.
I don't know how to come to any easy conclusions about a restaurant that can get one half of a dish perfectly right, and another half incredibly wrong. I really want to give 10/10 for the chicken and 1/10 for the blue cheese dip, but that way madness lies so instead I'll just go for a score that vaguely reflects my overall satisfaction with the place; namely, not very satisfied but not completely disappointed either. Plus there's every chance that one day soon Wingmans may realise their blue cheese dip is a disaster and will have another shot at it. Until then, the search for the perfect product goes on. Is anyone out there ready to be the Meatwagon of Buffalo wings?
Despite never having been to White City Place before, the vibe of the place felt eerily familiar. Originally a collection of BBC buildings, the writing was on the wall for them remaining so as soon as the price of a two-bed flat in Zone 2 spiked over £750,000 and so today they've transformed into yet another one of those wipe-clean reimaginings of a public space, still technically public domain but heavily stacked with lots of lovely investor-friendly residential blocks. See also: Battersea Power Station, Stratford Olympic Village, and so on.
Of course, though billions are to be made in residential housing, not even an absentee Saudi landlord would want to own property in a windswept concrete jungle with only a branch of Tesco Express and a Pret for entertainment, so more often than not these developments offer a sweet rent deal for half-decent restaurants, so they can pretend to be a normal functioning neighbourhood at least for as long as it takes to flog the apartments above. So Battersea Power station boasts - for now - a (
Wellbourne is, objectively, a nice restaurant. True, at first glance the menu appears to be rather unfocused, with various French, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern elements vying for attention, but anywhere serving Ibérico secreto and veal Holstein clearly have a bit of ambition about them, and with a Josper-style charcoal oven in the kitchen they've at least been able to spend some money on equipment to - in theory - make the most of it.
All of which may even have not been enough to tempt me to W12 were they not able to offer a type of cow I'd not seen on a menu before - 50-day-aged "Simmental" beef from HG Walter, a butcher already in my good books for supplying the astonishingly good burgers served by Harris at the aforementioned Coach in Clerkenwell. So with that, I hopped on the Central Line.
Before the steak though, some vol-au-vents. Every restaurant needs a USP, and it seems the team at Wellbourne (including the most affable Michael Kennedy who was in the kitchens the evening of my visit) have pinned their hopes on the humble vol-au-vent making a comback. And why not, because these were perfectly lovely little things, boasting good buttery casings and intelligent, well-seasoned fillings of lamb shoulder and mustard, salt cod, and (my favourite) broad beans, sheep's cheese and mint.
That I enjoyed my steak as much as I did is testament mainly to the quality of the raw ingredient, as I had various issues with the way it was presented. By all means serve steak on the bone - it's my preferred cut - but if you're going to cut it off said bone before serving, do not then re-grill the steakless bone (!?) to remove all trace of nice pink flesh, and do not drape the filleted beef over the bone on the plate, like it had all been dropped from the ceiling. Added to this, there wasn't enough of a crust or colour on the steak itself, which ended up looking a bit sad and flabby.
But! But. It still tasted great. This was clearly very good beef, and despite all the indignity it had suffered in the cooking process still managed to boast a dense, rich funkiness that only the most carefully-aged cow can. Simmental, interestingly, are mixed-use cattle that can be used for dairy or beef, much like the Galician breeds you find in so many trendy Spanish steakhouses these days (Lurra, Sagardi) and I don't know whether it's just a happy coincidence that this happens to chime with exactly what I'm looking for in a steak, or there's something about ex-dairy cattle that makes incredible beef, but I was more than impressed.
Veal Holstein was also a good example of its sort, carefully and prettily presented, tender veal schnitzel seasoned with good strong anchovies. And at the risk of repeating myself, how nice that a new bistro like this is making the effort to do something a bit unusual rather than filling the menu with burgers and Ceasar salads as I'm sure they could easily have done.
Oh yes, chips were very nice - neat and golden brown with a good crunch - though I preferred dipping them in a red wine jus than something called "bois boudrin" which had all the personality of cold Doritos salsa.
Fortified by good meat, as well as a glass of very good Napa red from their Coravin system, we felt comfortable enough to stay for desserts. "Dolce[sic] de leche" ice cream sandwich was excellent, soft inside without a trace of crystallisation, and with a nice salty crunchy biscuit. So too, lemon leaf sorbet which had loads of citrus punch and a smooth texture. The less said about the attempt to pair the ice cream with a dry manzanilla sherry, though, the better - a sweet port, hastily substituted, soon put things right.
Overall, then, there was enough to enjoy, and though clearly I can't be giving top marks to anywhere serving steak like that (if you like, see how different it looks on the restaurant's own website - wait for the 3rd slide), the quality made up for some of the texture and you can still do a lot worse for the same price elsewhere. Whether it will survive in this strange, lonely spot once the rents go up - we were one of two tables taken all evening - remains to be seen, but it's probably no safer than anywhere else in London at the moment, Saudi investors or no Saudi investors. So better just make the most of it all while we can.
I was invited to Wellbourne and didn't see a bill, though I imagine all of the above would have come to about £50/head or so.
In a city as large and diverse as London, with a population eager and willing to spend their money on whatever latest food obsession flares up, whether it's pasta or burgers or steamed Taiwanese buns, it's perhaps surprising that genuine blue-sky experimentation, no-holds-barred eccentricity, sheer boggle-eyed madness, is still a relatively rare thing. Yes, in these uncertain times you can understand why familiar comfort food would be an easier sell to investors than anything too, well, weird, but as Londoners avant-garde experimentation and counter-culturalism forms part of our very identity. So why not restaurants? How many places can you point to that are genuinely unleashed, and where nothing has come between the practicalities of running a profit and the sheer unrestrained bedlam of an unconventional chef's raw ideas?
To find the shortest journey between the blueprint and the result, and where the product available to buy is as close as possible to whatever crazy concept the creators first came up with, it's a good idea to turn to street food and popups. Only in the anything-goes environment of the popup, where the stakes are low and failure very much is an option, would anyone discover there was a market for
One look at the Freak Scene menu and you can see why this place started life as a popup. I can't think of many investors that would be happy to rent a prime central Soho location (where Barrafina used to be, no less) and turn it over to a group of people serving "Caramalised[sic] Foie Gras Lettuce Cups" and "Salmon sashimi 'Pizza' with truffle-ponzu", but it's thanks to the popularity and success of a stint in Farringdon that they now find themselves here at their first proper permanent site, with a mandate to be every bit as unhinged now as they were then.
The first thing that arrived - "Miso Grilled Black Cod Tacos with Sushi Rice and Scorched Red Chilli Salsa" - was an early indication that the needle would be set firmly on "WTF" for at least some of the evening. Individual elements of the dish were fantastic - bubbly-crisp taco casings, top quality miso-glazed black cod (as you might imagine from the man who spent years as the head chef at Nobu), fluffy room-temperature sushi rice you'd be delighted to be served elsewhere under a slice of raw fish. Together, the textures fought rather than complimented each other - particularly the soft fish next to the rice which made them both feel disconcertingly under-cooked - but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find enough to enjoy. Even just for the novelty factor.
Chilli Crab and Avocado Wonton 'Bombs' were relatively more normal insofar as crab and avocado is a tried-and-tested combo that you'd have to really go out of your way to mess up, and the little crisp parcels actually made a perfect delivery system; you just ate them with your fingers like you would cheese on a cracker. Spritzed with fresh lime juice and spiked with red chilli, there was plenty of crab and plenty of flavour, a bit of Asian-fusion fun.
The house chips were intriguingly subtitled "A Thousand Leaves", and turned out to be a kind of Quality Chop layered confit style, and incredibly moreish. I would have preferred a thicker jalapeno mayo - it was a bit difficult to get any kind of coating on the potato which was frustrating - but even so, a lot of work had gone into these and it's basically impossible not to enjoy sticks of flaky potato cake.
Hangar steak tataki salad was the least crazy of the dishes, and probably the most enjoyable. With soft strips of rare-seared beef, coriander, lettuce pomegranate seeds and crisp garlic flakes all soaked in a wonderfully sharp dressing ("onion ponzu" on the menu but I imagine that's not the half of it), it had all the fire and flavour of something from the kitchens at Kiln or Smoking Goat, and as anyone who's been to those places will tell you, that's quite the compliment.
But soon enough we were back in Bonkersville. I think the best way of describing my reaction to it is this: While I do like the fact I live in a city so experimental and diverse a restaurant feels able to sell a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves, and I'm glad that someone somewhere feels that a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves is something that should be served, I'm afraid I am not the target audience for a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves. I just think hot pig and cold seafood should be kept a certain distance from each other. They shouldn't touch.
Finally, and somewhat in contrast to the rather bijou portion sizes up until this point, "Chicken-fried chicken" was a huge leg and thigh portion sat on top of a pile of nuts in a soy-based sauce, and we struggled to finish it. Not because it was inedible, though parts were a bit cotton-woolly (they'd used some kind of double-cooking method, first confit-ing then frying, which I think reduced the moisture content somewhat) but just because there was so much of it. As with much of what had come before, it danced a fine line between exciting and baffling, between experimental and just plain odd, and we found ourselves veering between enjoyment and uncertainty with each mouthful.
But isn't that the point of operations like this? Wouldn't the world be a boring place if there weren't chefs like Scott Hallsworth willing to throw every trick up his sleeve at once into one of the most wilfully esoteric and barmy menus in town, and to hell with what people think? And because of this approach, and even despite it, you'd still have to have a heart of stone not to get something out of Freak Scene - for every challenge like hot pork and cold mussels there's crab wontons or beef tataki salad to retreat back into and calm the nerves. It's all part of the fun.
So although I definitely had issues with Freak Scene, and you're more than likely to have the same, like the raindrop cake or the black cheese toastie surely we can at least be glad this odd little operation exists. A singular vision from an eccentric and fun-loving team, its arrival on Frith Street makes London a more bizarre, and more exciting place, qualities in these uncertain times that are, sadly, increasingly hard to come by. It's not perfect, but it is unique. And more than enough to be proud of.
I was invited to Freak Scene and didn't see a bill, but a bit of maths tells me it would have been about £40/head with a bottle of wine.
Thanks to its conspicuous street-level floor-to-ceiling windows, and central-Soho location, the Marshall Street Masala Zone has been a part of most Londoners' conciousness since it opened in 2001. You won't have missed it if you've ever trotted into town to dinner from Oxford Circus, seemingly always busy no matter what time of day or night, and no doubt you've also seen their posters on the tube escalators advertising curry and rice with a beer or wine for a set price.
So, flashy tourist-trap locations? Posters on the tube? It's no wonder this scenester blogger stayed well clear of Masala Zone. As any self-respecting foodie knows very well, no restaurant within walking distance of Argyll Street that advertises on public transport will be worth anywhere near the prices they charge. No, best leave it for the gullible passing trade and undemanding tourists. All the more space in the queue at Bao for us.
Needless to say, I was completely wrong about Masala Zone. And the fact it took something as credibility-denting as an invite from a PR company to change my mind is just that much more garam masala in the wound. True, the prices are area-appropriate, and there are probably more atmospheric places to eat than a golfish tank squeezed under a hideous faceless concrete estate (
Of course, if you are one of the aformentioned insufferables, you will no doubt be able to gleefully point out all the places that do all the things that Masala Zone do but slightly better. Yes, scattering the tomato and onion salad over poppadums doesn't achieve much more than soggy poppadums, and probably is a bad idea. Yes, the coriander chutney at Gymkhana is much more powerfully-flavoured. True, the pao bread buns at Bombay Bustle are fluffier and glossier. But all of these things were still polished off with ease - they were still way better than "good enough".
Plus, plenty of the menu at Masala Zone genuinely was amongst the best of its kind I've come across in town. Gol guppa could definitely give the Gymkhana versions a run for their money, the delicate pastry casings holding their shape no matter how much fragrant tamarind water our greedy selves decided to load into them.
And this sprouted lentil salad (vegan, would you believe) contained an intelligent balance of soft and crisp, and plenty of sharp dressing to compliment the pulses. Presented in a precarious tower, it collapsed entertainingly with the prod of a fork, revealing further ingredients such as chopped tomato and coriander.
From the smaller dishes, only Chicken 65 really suffered in comparison to versions elsewhere. Here it was a bit sad, tough and underseasoned, lacking the vibrancy and fire of the dish served at (say) Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting. Still, it wasn't inedible, and itself disappeared soon enough.
Far more consistent - and impressive - were the larger dishes. "Idiappam Seafood Biryani" was a kind of Indian
The mixed grill (usually chicken tikka, lamb seekh kebabs and lamb chops, as here) is a good control variable for any kitchen with a tandoor, and I'm please to report Masala Zone batted way above the national average with confident spicing, aggressive grilling (meaning the morsels of chicken were just touched with carbon enough to provide a slight crunch) and deliriously bouncy seekh kebabs packing serious chilli heat.
And I should also pay tribute to the Alleppey prawn curry, apparently a Masala Zone classic which matched more fresh prawns with a deeply rewarding coconut/turmeric sauce. This again wouldn't be out of place in any high-end Indian restaurant in town, with luxurious spicing and pinpoint seasoning.
So, consider me schooled. While it's true that thanks to their West End pricing, laminated menus and Aberdeen Angus décor the Masala Zone may scream "tourist trap" to anyone who didn't know better, there's genuine creativity and talent behind the cooking here, and anyone who dismissed it out of hand (that would be me, then) for so long missed out on some very decent Indian meals in a part of town where such things are in desperately short supply. And if some of the sting in the tail has been removed by my not having to pay, then I can only say I'd more than likely go back, and recommend it to others if they were in the area and in the market for some puri and a mixed grill. Clearly they've been doing something right all these years, and deserve to do so for many years more. Long live Masala Zone.
I was invited to Masala Zone, and didn't pay. The above was for 4 people and probably would have come to about £45 ish a head had we seen a bill.
On Wednesday evening I broke one of the cardinal sins of eating out - I chose a restaurant based on setting and location, rather than the appeal of the menu or skills of the kitchen. This is usually a recipe for disaster, as it's well known the Curse of Tall Restaurants (a catch-all term that includes restaurants in impressive settings of any kind that don't have to try very hard to attract custom, no matter how far off the ground they are) is always ready to strike at any unfortunate punter that thinks the view from the 30th floor of an anonymous city tower block will make up for any lack of interest on the plate. Well maybe it can, for some people, just not the restaurant spods I tend to hang around with.
But while I am immune to the charms of most Tall Buildings you could mention, can take or leave river views and regard soaring marble atriums and plush furnishing with extreme indifference (this isn't the least bit true, but I'm trying to make a point so bear with me), there's one building - or more accurately, series of buildings - in London in which I would happily spend weeks on end, dinner or no dinner.
The Barbican is a breathtaking work of brutalist genius, a vast complex of soaring, bush-hammered concrete towers, monolothic apartment blocks dripping with hanging plants, and a series of landscaped grounds - including an astonishing sunken water garden - that adds up to as impressive a work of visual and sculptural art that you can find from any century, in any art gallery or museum in the world. I love its romantic spotlit stairways, the walkways threading their way through it all several stories in the air, the confidence and intelligence in every tiny detail of the place. I just love it there.
So yes, dinner at Osteria, on the third floor of the Barbican Centre (the arts complex in the middle of it all) was mainly an excuse to spend a couple of blissful hours taking in the beauty of the surroundings, out of the rain without resorting to standing in the theatre lobby downstairs and gawping like I usually do. The food didn't have to be brilliant, or even very good, to be worth our time.
Happily though, it was - most of it - more than worth the price of admission, and rather than being something to do with our hands while enjoying the view over the lakes and fountains, the food impressed in its own right. House foccacia was only slightly on the insubstantial side but tasted soft and fresh, and soaked up the olive oil nicely.
Ham broth was exactly what was expected and what was required, and so we had no complaints. A good, clear consommé, strongly seasoned and containing huge chunks of pig, the poached egg adding an extra layer of silky complexity, it was an eminently enjoyable starter.
So, too, a dish of grilled sardines coated in anchovy breadcrumbs and samphire. The effort that had clearly gone into removing most of the bones in the fish was appreciated, but it still wasn't quite bone-free enough to eat as a fillet, and the extensive further surgery required rather made the initial labour rather superfluous. They were fine little things though, soft flesh and crisp skin, and seasoned well.
Pan-roasted spring chicken had a strongly citrussy and nicely crisped skin strongly resembling the product from Chicken Shop, and as anyone who's ever been to Chicken Shop will tell you, this is a Good Thing. Perhaps the purple potatoes could have been a little warmer but that's a minor criticism of a dish that was otherwise effortlessly, straightforwardly enjoyable.
Similarly wild boar ragu, perhaps not the most blindingly wonderful bit of pasta I've ever been presented with in my life but cooked nicely al-dente, coated in plenty of parmesan and with a good mound of minced boar to make up for a slightly insipid tomato sauce. But the important thing is, both plates were licked clean. Not literally, that have been a bit embarrassing, but we certainly didn't leave anything edible behind.
We were even enjoying ourselves enough, thanks as much to the attentive service as the stunning views over St Giles Cripplegate and the City of London School for Girls, to order dessert. Sadly here our enthusiasm took a bit of a knock - sorbets were fine, a mango flavour probably being the best of the three flavours presented, the others lacking a bit in personality. But tiramisu was a pretty dubious affair, squirty cream and chopped-up brownie soaked in what felt like half a pint of booze, which felt us feeling rather queasy.
Still, all said and done, we were sat in the Barbican, playing a real part in the life of this extraordinary place, soaking in the atmosphere and making use of the cool 70s concrete toilets. For that alone it would have been worth the £42.75 a head with a carafe of Gavi di Gavi, and for the food to be not just passable but actually pretty enjoyable was a quite significant bonus. Apologies if this has turned into more of an architecture than food blog, but I hope you'll not mind indulging me just this once - rules are meant to be broken, and there's no building in London breaks the rules so comprehensively, and so successfully, as this brutalist beauty. Oh, and Osteria? That's rather good, too.