Review: The Truscott Arms, Maida Vale

I knew the Truscott arms in its previous guise, Idlewild. A fairly decent bar with some good food, it has been revamped and reverted to its previous name, The Truscott Arms. The long weekend was a perfect excuse to catch up with friends in the area and sample the place again.

Scallop and chicken win The most glamorous beetroot dish

We all ordered from the excellent value set lunch menu, £18 for 2 courses and £22 for 3. It was a short menu, 3 options for each course, but everything sounded appetising. Starters for me didn’t require too much thinking, scallops and chicken wings, what’s not to like. The scallop came in thick slices, cooked with a bit of colour and very tender. Alongside those were two meaty bits of chicken wing and some roasted pearl barley. A well measured portion for a lunch starter, and some super meaty umami-rich jus brought it all together into a brilliant starter. The wife opted for candied beetroot and ricotta. Elegantly presented, with a variety of beetroots (including some beetroot jelly) and a quenelle of homemade ricotta. Anna enjoyed it, I found it well cooked but overly sweet and pushing somewhere towards a dessert for my palate.

Special mention to the drinks at this point, the beer selection was very good with London Fields and Camden Town on tap (I opted for the always superlative Shoreditch Triangle IPA). They also have an extensive wine list with plenty of interesting choices by the glass. My glass of Lebanese red (chateau Ksara rather than the more usually seen Mussar) to go with my main was absolutely excellent and a bargain at £9 for 250ml.

Delicious short rib A cracking plate of fish

Short rib of beef was the natural option for me next. A very hearty plate of unctuous soft meat accompanied by a slice of pomme Anna and spinach. The meat was flavoursome and perfectly cooked. The pomme Anna had a crisp edge and was soft in the middle, with a side of morels and morel sauce adding the final touch for a great dish. Very hard to fault, it was rich, comforting and decadent making full use of this cheap flavoursome cut. Anna and Sam shared a big plate of lemon sole with potatoes, asparagus and a mussel veloute. It was presented on a sharing platter, very generously portioned again with soft well-cooked fish.

Sticky banana dessert

Desserts, I was going to resist but given it was only £4 and seeing the quality of the good, I couldn’t resist. Sticky toffee pudding with banana was a great twist on a classic. A light sweet sponge and sauce was paired with fresh banana, banana ice cream and topped with a quenelle of cream. The fresh banana stopped it being too cloying and the banana ice-cream had great depth of flavour. For £22, this was an absolutely cracking meal, and paired with the great drinks was a very enjoyable lunch. I will definitely be back.

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Review: Flatiron burger, Soho

Liking the branded cleavers

Flatiron is a small restaurant in Soho (Beak Street) known mainly for its namesake steaks, at £10 a pop. I’ve been meaning to pop in for a while and walked past at just the right time on a solo wander around the capital, it seemed perfect for lunch. I was seated quickly at a shared table (this is a no booking kind of place) in the narrow dining room. No nonsense decor was still stylish and suited the atmosphere. I liked the branded meat-cleaver style knives as well. Complimentary popcorn was brought quickly as I sat down. The waitress sold me on the burger this time round, not the steak, as the special and apparently voted the best in London, quite a claim.

Quite a bun

Excellent saladSo the burger special came with Bearnaise sauce / shallots, and apparently the patty is deep-fried (I requested pink). The buns are from St. John bakery, a good sign. And I went off-menu for my sides, no chips and instead a green salad. What actually came was a pear, blue cheese and walnut salad, luckily I like those ingredients. The pear was soft and sweet, a nice tang from the cheese, crunch from the walnuts and a great mixture of leaves. A very good side salad. As to the main event, the burger had a crisp crust to its exterior as you might expect from the cooking. The patty was beefy with that slight grass-fed funk. However it was a tiny bit dry, I think they need more fat in the mix to get it juicier. And it didn’t have any sharp ingredients (pickles) to cut through the meat. Bearnaise was good, but I’m not sure it’s a great ingredient on a burger personally. The bun had a good flavour and bite, but was a tad big for the patty size.

Overall, a good burger, although not the cheapest at £10 without sides. The beer list is good with some local London brews so all-in the bill was £20. I’ll be back to try the steak for sure, and quite possibly for another go at the burger.

 

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Review: Rogan & Co, Cartmel

After a broadly successful but not outstanding trip to the Pig & Whistle, I was intrigued to see how the other “casual” Simon Rogan restaurant in Cartmel would compare. We had booked for dinner but swapped last minute to lunch which they were very accommodating about. The restaurant is housed in a clean rustic building with simple and elegant place settings. Lots of space between tables adds to the relaxed feel. The staff are very well turned out and there are plenty of them.

Amuse Bouche: Cheese powder with pickled onion on a cheese crackerBrown ale and white rolls

The menu is short and focused, 3 choices for each course. It was all very reasonable: £28.50 for 3 courses / £19.50 for 2 courses at lunch. Even better when we’re brought an amuse bouche and fresh bread. The amuse was a cheese cracker topped with pickled onion and cheese “snow” with some micro-leaves (beetroot maybe?). It evoked a ploughman’s in a single bite with strong sweet onion, I was hoping for more depth in the cheese powder though (and personally I’m never sure of the texture of these snows). Rolls next, the brown with ale and a simple white. They came hot and were very moorish, nothing fancy but just excellent fresh rolls and soft butter.

Coal oil mackerel with oyster and pickled kohlrabiThe wife skipped starters but I couldn’t resist the mackerel in coal oil, especially after loving the ox in coal oil at Roganic. This dish came beautifully presented, the mackerel underneath topped by a stained-red pickled kohlrabi, radish, oyster emulsion and a dash of oil. Raw mackerel and smokey oil gave a contrast of flavour and texture, just like the coal dish. The vivid green oyster emulsion added depth and fishiness without being overpowering. A cracking dish.

Beef Middle white pork and cabbage

The mains were works of art with fresh skilfully cooked elements plated prettily. My generous beef main came with two good pieces of rump cap that had been cooked sous-vide and a slow cooked beef “floss”. Served with jerusalem artichokes, mustard jus and greens. The meat was incredibly tender (especially considering the cut), barely needing the Laguiole steak knife they brought over. It paired perfectly with the rich, crisp floss and soft artichoke. I couldn’t fault this dish. The wife’s main was middle white pork and cabbage. A tall square pork belly piece cooked again perfectly to be meltingly tender with an unctuous layer of fat and crisp skin. The charred cabbage still had bite but with added flavour from the crisped, almost burnt, edges. We felt the portion could have been slightly more generous though, especially given my beef.

Pear cake Frozen yogurt and blackberryI was torn between the cheese and dessert but opted for something sweet and we visited the superb Cartmel cheese shop afterwards instead, the perfect compromise. My dessert was a sweet spiced pear cake with pear slices, malt mousse and tea. Not sure if the tea was the iced bit, I found the crunchy texture odd with cake though. Ignoring that part, the cake was moist and well spiced which combined with the velvety malt mousse and was very satisfying. Soft poached pears added some fresh fruit and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in a long time. Not overly sweet and somehow very comforting. The wife had frozen yogurt with blackberry and caramelised cobnuts. The blackberries came as a sharp gel which cut through the sweet yogurt whilst the cobnuts added crunch and sweetness. Another excellent dessert.

A very satisfying lunch, every course was delicious and well balanced. All of this with 3 cracking glasses of wine for £75 (excluding service) is incredible value in my book. Whilst we admittedly drank a bit more at the Pig & Whistle (and went for dinner), the fact this lunch was cheaper was surprising. My only niggling thought was that perhaps everything was a little safe. The menu read as slightly more adventurous then the dishes came out. Maybe that’s an indication of the skilful combinations, but I wanted my palate to be slightly more challenged (although not to the same extent as Roganic). However I can’t really complain about flawless cooking and ingredients presented as pieces of art, thoroughly recommended!

 

Review: Simon Rogan’s Pig & Whistle Pub, Cartmel

An enticing menu

My first and only experience of Simon Rogan’s food thus far has been a lucky trip to his London restaurant Roganic. A 2 year “popup”, it was a revelatory night of fiercely English sourced ingredients. On the whole delicious and never dull, it did veer towards a challenging bitter palate. Home proper for Rogan is Cartmel, the small Cumbrian village making a big culinary impact and being spearheaded by a trio of Rogan restaurants. The flagship 2 Michelin starred L’Enclume is flanked by the more casual Rogan&Co, and then just down the road is the “fine little boozer” we were heading to. The village also has a fantastic cheese shop, coffee shop, brewery and several other pubs. Special mention must go to the excellent fine wine and spirits shop Red Pepper where I had a quick pre-dinner gin tasting.

The most casual of the lot, this pub has been deliberately kept as a pub should be at the front. The main bar area is a tight squeeze and we had a couple of drinks whilst waiting for our table, it was lively and has maintained a “locals” atmosphere. A decent couple of local ales were on tap. We were then ushered round the back to the dining room, past the men’s toilets in fact. The dining room is small and low-key, with a few couples at different tables and one group of 4. This made the room a bit quiet at first, people warmed up as the night (and wine) progressed though.

Some sinfully delicious marmite and cheese swirl bread plus a sourdough were brought round shortly, along with butter on a small slab. Excellent bread although the butter was too cold (and seemed at odds with the prestige given to the dramatic swoosh of butter on a Rogan “foraged” stone we had at Roganic). I started with the pressed ham terrine and piccalilli, which arrived as a generous slab of pork meat wrapped in bacon. The meat was nicely seasoned and had a good firm close texture, but only had a couple of slivers of pistachio for interest. Whilst understandably not layered or as interesting as a game terrine for example, I was hoping for a bit more. The piccalilli was chunky and cut through the meat well, a solid dish. The wife had the onion tart which was a sweet layer of onions in an admirably delicate piece of pastry sitting on a beetroot puree. Simple, earthy and well balanced.

I’ll mention the wine list at this point, it’s pretty short with around 6-7 bottles per colour and around 3 by the glass. Since only I was drinking (driving duties for the wife) it did slightly sway my food choices, all the wine by the glass was under £15 a bottle (most at the £12 mark) which either means the markup is non-existent, the wines are impeccably sourced for the budget, or more likely they are a bit cheap. Nothing wrong with that and I understand this is appealing to a different market but something slightly nicer by the glass might be good (or perhaps I’m just a snob). Anyway I solved the problem with a crisp bottle of Saint Veran and chose my food roughly around that.

Tender hakeYou don’t tend to see hake that often in restaurants, perhaps it has an image problem being associated with frozen blocks of fish and parsley sauce (that’s my memory of it anyway). But this sounded very appealing, served with parsley potatoes, brown shrimps, spinach and topped with granola. The fish was moist and firm with a good flake, excellently cooked. The shrimps added some more sweet seafood depth and the parsley potatoes were smooth and rich. The granola was puffed grains (rice perhaps) and added some crunch and savoury notes. The leaves at the very top were maybe a step far, but I finished it all happily.

Beef, celeriac and rostiThe wife opted for slow cooked beef with salt baked celeriac, beetroot and potato rosti. We were told the beef had been cooked sous-vide which isn’t quite what I imagined by slow-cooked, we were both expecting a shin of beef or something meltingly tender. It looked like a blade steak to me actually, and was understandably a but chewy, especially around the connective tissue in the middle. Barring that, the meat was beefy and full flavoured with a rich ale gravy. The wife really liked the giant rosti (I thought it was a tad dry) and the salt baked celeriac was tender but still too salty.

Apple and pear crumbleWe managed to resist temptation (just about) and shared a dessert. Pear and almond crumble with marigold sorbet. It came very attractively presented in its own little pot, with a scoop of sorbet. The sorbet was very interesting, reminding me of a sherbet-y elderflower flavour. It was also very sweet though and didn’t help cut through the sweetness of the pear and almond. The crumble topping was thick and had a crunchy top, it also had a cakey texture though. The pears were sweet and juicy although quite wet and un-skinned.

All-in for a total of five courses and a nice bottle of wine plus service was £95. Service was very good, friendly and knowledgable. I liked the place and the meal and think for the money they are charging they are doing well. But I wish a couple of dishes were slightly elevated and a few little mistakes corrected, then it would be a strong recommendation. As it is I enjoyed it but wouldn’t make it a must-visit.

 

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Review: 64 Degrees, Brighton

Take note, any restaurant which my wife is happy to endure a 2hr journey with rail replacement service for must be worth heading to. I’ll spoil the surprise, 64 Degrees more than lived up to the challenge, delivering excellent cooking with interesting dishes and innovation on every plate. All this for a restaurant that only opened a few short months ago. We know one of the chefs Chopper and headed down with a couple of mutual friends to see how the restaurant was doing. Integrity is key to this blog for me, we paid full price for everything and I can easily say it was one of my top meals of the year.

All too tempting

Situated in the scenic lanes in the centre of Brighton, it’s a small restaurant with under 30 covers. We sat at the long bar in front of the kitchen, giving a birds-eye view of everything that was happening. The format is small dishes; being a group of 4 and greedy we literally ordered everything (4 fish, 4 meat, 4 veg and 4 dessert) which came out as Chopper presented them. Everything sounded too tempting to choose from anyway, so why not.

Salmon "pastrami"

Kimchi cabbage "wings"

Purple!

The intriguing salmon pastrami came first, a cured salmon with traditional pastrami spices. It had a firm texture which gave it bite and presence. Served with small pieces of rye bread, pickles and a mustard dressing it invoked a fish memory of pastrami sandwiches that worked very well. The dish I was most excited by next. Kimchi chicken dramatically presented with dehydrated cabbage kimchi “wings” and a side of the lightest blue cheese foam. The chicken wings were meaty and tender with a light spice, but the punch of the cabbage really picked them up and the sauce brought it together. The stand-out memory of the meal for me. Potato, artichoke, almond and mushroom topped with freshly shaved almond at the same time. A great side dish with interesting textures and ingredients, probably not enough depth to stand on its own though.

Scallop and appleCauliflower and shallot bhaji

Fissssh and chips.

Mackerel

Onto seafood, in the form of seared scallops and apple. Served with a granny smith puree, the sour bite surprised me by combining so deliciously well with the sweet flesh of the scallop. A smidgen of bacon added some saltiness and depth although more is always good. Cauliflower with shallot bhaji brought a nice crisp deep fried bhaji with roasted cauliflower. I particularly liked the neat shaved squares of raw cauliflower stem, the pomegranate was a bit sharp for the warm rich batter though. Fish and chips, the classic English seaside dish, we are in Brighton after all. Deconstructed somewhat but still true to itself, with succulent fish, a pea puree and a punchy tartare. The chips could have been crisper, but the separate batter kept that light and crunchy. For balance I wanted a bit more sharp flavour from although the pickled quail’s egg helped in that direction. A very pretty dish next, mackerel with yuzu, cucumber and coconut. Deliciously cooked fish with some citrus sharpness from the yuzu and the slightly odd-sounding but actually well balanced addition of coconut.

Pig cheek, pineapple and tortilla

House egg cooked at "64 degrees"

Onion, mustard, malt

Pig cheek, pineapple and tortilla. An intriguing combo again, but hinting at a more traditional salsa side. Tender, meaty soft pig cheek went well with the pineapple although I found the tortilla a bit heavy. Very elegantly dressed, as was every dish so far I noted. Now it became more clear why the restaurant was called 64 degrees, particularly with the sous-vide circulator working away in front of us. Their signature “64 degrees” egg reflecting the temperature it is cooked precisely to, served with girolles and ham hock. It makes for a very soft egg as you might expect, served with the classic mushroom and bacon effectively, a solid dish although not as interesting to me as some of the others. A great dish next, onions with a “Longman” cheese sauce, a punchy English mustard sauce and malt crumbs. Earthy, sweet and pickly combined into a taste of a Ploughman’s in a single bite, clever.

Brisket, potato, carrot

 

Knodel, cabbage

We were getting full by now but pressed onwards. Soft unctuous salty brisket served with potato and carrot. Classic cooking done well, the carrot hat was whimsical presentation but the flavours were spot on. The final savoury course came, potato knodel with cabbage and smoked butter. A comforting dish of “gnocchi” like potato dumplings and cabbage, it lacked the punch of earlier dishes and might have been better to have earlier. I can’t fault the dish in itself though with soft dumplings and the added dimension of smoked butter.

Sticky toffee puddingRhubarb with cinnamon cream

Rum bear jelly

Hot chocolate "smore"A fantastical selection of desserts to finish. A classic sweet sticky toffee pudding with an added kick of bourbon in the sauce. Next my favourite, soft poached rhubarb with a cinnamon cream, perfect balance between sharp and sweet. A nice nod the the Fat Duck jellies came on a tile in the guise of somewhat larger “rum bears” dashed with sharp citric acid sugar (Haribo-esque in a good way). Finally a hot chocolate in a pot, with a pumpkin smore and the added bonus of a more cake like base and popping candy in the bottom. Every bit demolished.

"Movember Clark Gable" Chopper charring some orange for our cocktail

Short drinks list

Drinks wise, a short wine list gets straight to the point with good value and everything by the glass (including a cheeky English sparkling number from Ambriel, lots of sharp apple flavour in there). We also went for one of the chef’s cocktails, a great twist on an old fashioned by charring the orange to add smokiness to a base of Highland Park.

Wow, what a meal. The friendly, relaxed atmosphere and simple menu descriptions lull you in, then they hit you with a massive punch of flavour and clever twists in every dish. The total bill came in at around £55 a head with plenty of booze, ridiculously good value by my standards and I can’t wait to be back soon. Easily worth a trip from further afield, I’m looking forward to seeing how the restaurant and dishes develop.

 

The Fat Butcher at The Grafton, NW5

The human rights act should, of course, be amended to include the provision of a solid local pub to every citizen of this nation. Somewhere between the right to assembly and the bit about free elections there must be some space in a margin to cram it in. And fortunately when I moved to Kentish Town last year I found the recently refurbished Grafton pub. Beer in jugs, piano sessions on a Sunday, and at the time fantastic burgers supplied by residents Lucky Chip, what more could you want? I was sad to see Lucky Chip depart for fresh pastures but as they say man can not live by burgers alone.

Murmurings of a “fat butcher” piqued my interest and I first met the new resident chef / FOH team during the summer. Will, the chef, was manning a BBQ outside with succulent joints of pork to soak up a beer-fuelled afternoon. Mentions of experience at St. John and the Canton Arms, along with butchering whole animals on-site, added to the anticipation. So we ventured out on a very hung over Saturday afternoon to see how they’ve settled in.

Fried artichokes and anchovy sauce

The menu is to-the-point with short sharp descriptions focusing on quality ingredients. Naturally, given the name, there are always interesting cuts and varieties of meat along with some innovative sides.  We couldn’t resist some artichokes to get going, served with anchovy sauce. A plate of neatly prepared artichokes arrived, with a side of anchovy sauce and wedge of lemon. The artichokes had just the right bite and were lifted with the punchy salty sauce and sharp lemon. Simple, confident and delicious.

Rabbit Casear salad Brown crab and toast

I opted for a starter sized rabbit caesar salad. Again classic and simple but with a twist by using rabbit, a much underused meat in this country. It came as a generous portion of romaine lettuce with a light sauce and plenty of meat. The meat was beautifully tender (leg meat?), no mean feat with what can be a dry animal. Possibly a touch heavy on the salty parmesan but otherwise excellent. Then I followed with crab on toast, a mix of brown meat in a sauce with 2 slices of good toasted bread. Plenty of crab flavour and the simple addition of lemon and chives to lift it. I would have prepared a slightly firmer texture personally, more pate like, but it still had good depth.

Juicy chicken and coleslaw Onglet and chips

The other dishes at the table were the generous 1/2 chicken with spicy coleslaw. Tender juicy chicken, crisp skin and a heavy kick of chilli in the coleslaw gave what could have been a boring dish an interesting almost Southern States twist. And the meat stood out and was allowed to shine. Onglet steak and chips came as a good hunk of meat and carbs. Excellent crisp classic chips. The steak was rare although perhaps a tiny bit tough initially since it was thick. Nothing a good steak knife couldn’t handle, and being onglet there was bags of beefy flavour.

So, on perspective, a very enjoyable meal. Undeniably simple combinations but with some interesting twists and most importantly superb execution. The prices are very keen, I’d go so far as to say cheap for the portions and quality. It fits the atmosphere and ethos of the pub perfectly and I’ll look forward to trying more of what they have to offer.

Review: The Dock Kitchen, Kensal Green

Dock Kitchen is a restaurant living the dream. Stevie Parle initially started it as a popup with the vaunted designer-furniture magnate Tom Dixon, eventually creating a permanent restaurant with a constantly rotating menu. It’s a very impressive space within the dock development overlooking the canal, and is unsurprisingly decked out in a cornucopia of Dixon lamps and trinkets. In the now much trendy Kensal Green area, it was buzzy and full on a Friday evening at 9pm with media types, tables are apparently hard to come by.

As well as an a la carte menu, they offer a themed tasting menu which this month has been inspired by Turkey (although strangely the menu says it was only a “short” trip by Stevie and Eliot). We opted for that, a Turkish feast as it was billed by our waitress, for £65 including 3 glasses of wine. It was served meze style with lots of sharing plates. First up was a plate of 3 huge flatbreads topped with spices and oil. They looked very thin with a crunchy exterior but were still soft in the middle, very nice. When we started the food proper, we were brought another 3 of them but I wasn’t complaining. 3 “dips” next, on the left was civezli biber. A new one to me, it was a walnut and pepper based sauce with a slight mild pistou like flavour, great with the bread. Smoked wheat and yogurt topped with pomegranate was very garlicky. Tahini, by itself, was thick but went well enough. The overall effect was a bit drying and acidic on the tongue with the 3 dips though.

Giant flatbreads Biber, smoked wheat / yogurt and tahini

Served at the same time were some small vine leaves stuffed with wheat and chicken livers. I love chicken livers, but the combination with a bitter vine leaf didn’t convince me, they were very thinly filled as well and mainly vine. Aubergine, labne and tomato was my favourite of the selection with soft aubergine, sharp labne and rich tomato. Very tasty. The last to be served in this round was the clear loser at the table, a radish, walnut and herb salad. Looking very red (from beetroot perhaps) it was unpleasantly bitter and the combination of hard radish chunks and walnut dried the mouth. We barely finished a third of it.

Chicken smeared (not filled!) vine leaves My favourite, aubergine and labneh The bitter radish and walnut saladBefore the mains we were brought another dish, a wild mushroom manti with yogurt and chilli butter. Interestingly reminiscent of the delicious Mantu at the Afghan restaurant Araiana II, unfortunately nowhere near as good. Somewhat a cross between dumplings and filled pasta, they were small and a touch hard. The filling wasn’t particularly mushroom tasting, my wife hates mushroom and managed a few even. And the chilli yogurt sauce had no spice and was extremely (almost inedibly) salty.

Wheat and greens Stuffed quince

 

The mains came shortly after as sharing platters. One large plate was filled with some roasted quinces, each filled with a topping of nuts and lamb. Another bowl had a generous portion of heap of greens and wheat. No getting away from the fact it was inelegant, in fact I wouldn’t be that happy serving it at a dinner party. Perhaps a large supper club with a limited set of chefs, which this was starting to feel somewhat like. I was interested to see the quince, I had no idea they were that colour or size! They were quite tart (like an under ripe peach in fact) which I found a bit odd with the warming spices of the lamb. The meat was dry and lacked punch, the greens were fine. Mid-week supper territory?

Dessert for 2

 

And finally dessert. The above was served per 2 people. A reasonable selection of fruit with some nice fresh ripe torn figs (the best thing on the plate), some green grapes and orange segments. Bizarrely the orange was topped with thick savoury tahini, a very unpleasant combination for dessert in mine (and the rest of the table’s) opinion. The bowl had a sort of fragrant rice pudding (the exact combination escapes me). Topped with pistachios (and more of that bloody tahini) along with a sweet syrup, it was sweet and decent enough if a bit sloppy.

So, all in all, a very disappointing meal. Certainly an interesting menu that held lots of promise and provided an interesting cultural perspective on Turkish food. But crucially, failed to deliver good taste or even a basic level of refinement. As we discussed on the table, it’s quite arrogant to base a whole menu on a “brief” holiday and this came through in the balance of the dishes. If this was still a supper club I might have been more forgiving, but it was close to £90 a head in a hectic trendy restaurant. I’m intrigued to see if this menu is a blip in their repertoire but don’t fancy a trip back soon.
Dock Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Review: Ballaro, Belsize Park

On the former site of the Haverstock Arms, a slightly dingy although very honest kind of pub, the site was unoccupied for quite a while and I keenly watched as it was being refurbed and spruced up for its new opening. What appeared was Ballaro, with a gleaming white exterior and large fancy lights to entice in the Belsize Park locals. The chef, Carmelo Carnivale, is ex head chef at Novikov. Not that I’ve been there so I didn’t take much from that, it sounds impressive though for a new neighbourhood restaurant. Even better they had a 50% offer for their soft launch so I snapped up a table for lunch.

We were greeted promptly with a warm Italian welcome and shown to the table, they’re definitely aiming for a more formal service although not too stuffy, I almost expected to be air kissed as I walked in. No doubting this is an Italian restaurant, buongiornons abound. As soon as we sat down we were brought a small glass of prosecco each and a selection of breads and antipasti. The wine was delicious, dry and crisp with a touch of apple sweetness. The cheese and tomato bread was moist and moreish, and I enjoyed the salty olive tapendade. Olives / peppers and the parmesan were good as expected. The foccacia squares and rolls were dry but we’d had plenty to start for a lunch.

Bread Antipasti and prosecco

Onto the food proper. The menu is split into a traditional format with starters, pasta primi and main secondi. Given this was lunch, we chose to split a starter, split a pasta and have a main each. Burrata and tomatoes was up first, at a rather shocking £11.50 so I was expecting something mind-blowing. This after all is a lot more expensive the superlative Trullo who have an excellent burrata starter. It certainly did exactly what it says on the tin, with a plate of halved cherry tomatoes, burrata, oil and basil. And nothing else, disappointing. Still, if perfect it could be forgiven from a culinary perspective (if not financially). The burrata had a soft texture and was creamy with good seasoning. It was however served unusually in strands rather than a ball with a soft interior. The tomatoes were not good, being under ripe and tart. Quite frankly like a £1 special of hard supermarket tomatoes. A major annoyance in a £5 starter, definitely unacceptable at this price. Casareccie Norma was brought at the same time as the burrata, although we had asked for them to be brought separately, I’ll give them a break since they’re settling in to a new restaurant. Again at £11.50, pasta and tomato sauce better be good. Nice al-dente rolled pasta, a reasonable tomato sauce with some depth, basil. Topped with a healthy pile of grated ricotta. Good comfort food but not much more, I would have expected to see more aubergine (I can’t actually recall any) and more depth in the sauce, it was overly sweet as well. Very neat pasta, I’m not convinced it was home made which would be very disappointing at that price but I forgot to ask so can’t assert either way.

Buratta - £12 worth Casareccie NormaThe mains list was very traditional in general but the mention of cous-cous (Sicilian) caught my eye, served with seafood. It came well presented with a pile of seafood atop a small mound of cous-cous and a light seafood broth to add moisture and flavour. The whole split langoustine was a highlight, plenty of sweet meat. The octopus and scallop were soft and sweet and a couple of juicy mussels. Tomato halves were a bit misplaced in this dish but strangely good, why didn’t they use these in the starter? Overall a reasonable mix of ingredients brought together by the broth but again needing more depth and punch. The wife had tuna steak with ratatouille. Requested medium-rare and served slightly over, it worked adequately with traditional flavourings but no excitement.

Sicilian cous cous and sea food Tuna steak

 

Pretty stuffed for lunch by this point, we couldn’t resist a shared bowl of ice-cream, asking for a scoop of lemon sorbet and a scoop of pistachio. We actually received 3 scoops of each (2 portions), oh well. We mentioned the mistake and were told we’d only be charged for 1 (but were charged for 2, at least it was half price). Anyway, it was a very good sorbet, almost sherbety with a crisp lemony flavour and snow-like texture. The pistachio was also excellent, super creamy and smooth with more deep flavour. Hence I didn’t correct the bill.

Ultra smooth creamy pistachio ice-creamSo, bearing in mind this was their opening week there are some promising signs. But, the dishes overall lacked depth and flavour, something essential to Italian cuisine, especially with such a simple traditional menu. That paired with the price is hard to swallow. Even with the 50% off food it was at the limit of what I would pay for the food. Lunch with a couple of glasses of wine is pushing £50 a head, all out for dinner you’d be looking at £75+ a head with wine. I realise this is Belsize Park, but they need to develop their flavours more and perhaps add more adventurous dishes and combinations to avoid looking somewhat dated. Everything was neat and well presented but that’s not enough to make up for lack of flavour at this price.

 

Review: Upstairs at the Ten Bells, Shoreditch

I’m a tad late to the party on this one, the Ten Bells has been generating a lot of blog inches with plenty of praise when the Young Turks took over the upper floors as a popup restaurant. A group of like-minded, up and coming chefs, their “Upstairs” restaurant was received very well. Now, one of the Turks, Isaac, has continued solo with the venture and is serving up similar food. And apparently the pub was once run by Jamie Oliver’s great grandfather, so make of that what you will.

Pushing our way through the busy noisy pub on a Wednesday night up the original (and very “distressed”) staircase we knew we’d arrived in Shoreditch. The vibe is French Boho chic (natch), with mismatched furniture albeit with a Tracey Emin neon and a Peter Blake hanging on the wall. It reminded me of upstairs at The Fox nearby, albeit that was ten years ago. But it’s perfectly functional and has its own charm and quirks, plus the focus is of course the food as arguably it should be. Service was friendly but still very efficient, we were seated quickly. We were initially offered a sharing table which I don’t think is entirely on when we’ve had a table booked for 2 for our anniversary for a couple of months, but found an alternative in the end, maybe I’m just getting more curmudgeonly about these things.

The wine list is mainly old world and focused especially on the French side of things, plus a couple of Italians and Spanish numbers. They brought us a taste of a Spanish bottle and grape I wasn’t familiar with, just as well as I wasn’t overly keen and we settled on a very nice Saint Aubin to try and match across all the varied snacks and courses we had chosen. Being dark these pictures are even worse than usual so apologies.

Bread Signature pine salt chicken Westcombe cheddar baby leeks Venison and grainsThere are a mix of snacks and starters, both priced around £4-£7 which gives you quite a few options when deciding how to begin your meal. I’m a fan of this style, it allows more variation and a bit of sharing with some smaller plates plus gives the kitchen a chance to show off individual elements more easily. Bread was brought to the table and this was definitely noteworthy, it had an excellent thick crisp crust to reveal a soft interior. The butter was good although unsalted, but it was soft and there was salt on the table so all good. Our snacks were the signature pine buttermilk chicken and leeks with Westcombe cheddar fonduata (cheese sauce). The chicken was presented very well, nestled snugly in some big pine needles for a lovely aroma. They were covered in a crisp salty piney shell and underneath was the softest chicken thigh I’ve ever had. They were on the verge of too salty for me, but as a morsel they were very delicious. A high end chicken nugget effectively. I wondered if a sauce might help but decided it would distract from the wonderful texture of the chicken. The tiny baby leeks came dipped in a bowl of rich and earthy cheddar sauce. Initially seeing the amount of leeks for £5 I was a tad disappointed, but they tasted fantastic slightly charred and combining the leftover sauce with the bread made up for any price worries!

The starter was the least successful for me, deer tartare with granola and pickled elderberries. The tartare came as neat cubes of fallow deer, surrounded by a nutty granola mix, slices of pear, pickled elderberries and topped with a few nasturtium leaves. All very Rogan-like in fact. I loved the sound of it, but putting it altogether I found it dry and couldn’t help but imagine I was eating a tracker bar with bits of deer. The elderberries were sweet with only a light pickle taste, the pear was obviously sweet and a bit grainy but there was a lot of savoury granola that I felt texturally ruined the soft deer and became quite a chewy blob. The wife was more forgiving of it and didn’t mind the texture so much, I felt the deer was lost in there though. Adjusting the ratios and playing with the pickle would help.

Fish and "porridge" 11-IMG_2831 12-IMG_2832

 

Mains next. I opted for the beef rump. It came rare (I don’t think I was asked actually) and very well rested so it remained juicy and beefy. Obviously rump is never going to be the most tender of options and it did need a steak knife (a very scary looking hunk of Sheffield steel they brought over) but for the chosen cut, it was admirably soft. Alongside it was a buttery portion of potato flavoured with bone marrow for even more richness. Maybe not quite as rich as my recent Pitt Cue version but it worked well with the beef. An aubergine cake was a bit mysterious (I had to ask what it was actually) and had an odd texture, a bit like a nod to those French vegetable mousses you get (and I’m not a big fan of). But it did add moisture along with the excellent sauce. A couple of slices of courgette were well grilled, and the onion rings added a good textural component. On reflection it was a very good dish, and at £17.50 is great value for a well cooked steak and interesting pairings.

Th wife opted for cod with bagna cauda and barley porridge. Very well presented again, the cod looked spectacular with a thick piece of snowy white flesh and seriously crispy skin here, nothing soggy in sight. It was a very well cooked piece of fish, soft and flaking. The bagna cauda solidified the dish with its richness and slight anchovy tang. The barley porridge was an unusual take on the usual carb sides and I was a big fan. A great dish and serious bargain at under £17.

Brik pastry fig tartFeeling quite full at this point we opted to share a dessert (and were even debating if we needed that). I’m not always the biggest fan of figs, probably because if you catch them at the wrong time they are either lacking in flavour or a horrible texture. So, fig tart was a risk, and entirely worth taking since they were perfectly ripe, sweet and firm but with enough give. This is probably the best fig dish I’ve tasted (including my famed fig canapés), combining crisp thin brik pastry with fig jam and fresh figs. What could have been cloying was just perfectly sweet and the brik pastry was slightly salty, cutting through everything. Atop all of that was a hay ice cream, very fresh and light rather than sweet to cut through the dish (although I couldn’t detect much hay). Finally it was drizzled with fig leaf oil, giving more green fresh flavour. This paired with a generous glass of Loire dessert wine may even have been my favourite dish, very rare for me to favour a dessert. A bargain at £7 since it was huge as well.

All in, the bill ended up at around £140 which considering over half of that is wine (the Saint Aubin wasn’t cheap) is amazing value. The food was consistently excellent and most importantly every single dish had interesting elements and there were a lot of components or combinations that were new to me, something that isn’t that easy these days on the London dining scene. There were definitely elements I didn’t entirely like, but I much preferred the fact they were on there and we talked a lot about the dishes throughout the meal. My high expectations after reading so much were met and I’ll be back soon. Just make sure you bring some hipster headwear to blend in to the pub downstairs.

 

Review: Del Parc, Tufnell Park

Del Parc, located a brisk walk uphill away from me in leafy Tufnell Park, has been on my radar for some time after hearing several locals to my new neighbourhood rave about it. So, a thank you dinner offered by some family seemed a perfect time to try out this local restaurant. Del Parc serves tapas, with a focus on classic Spanish dishes with a slight North African twist (think Moro etc). Their dedication to produce and sourcing is keen, wanting to serve the best they can.

We were greeted warmly and sat in the main restaurant at the back, it had a low key buzzy atmosphere with several diners already tucking in amongst the casual decor. The kitchen stands in the middle of the room, and we saw the passion and focus of the main chef Steve turning out dish after dish. There is no menu per-se, but Alan who greeted us asked if we had any allergies or strong dislikes, and then simply started bringing dishes. No mention either of price which I suppose could worry some people but I was happy to go with the flow having heard lots of good things about the food and the price.

Just a few highlights from the courses we sampled. Juicy olives and super garlicky cannelini beans we were brought as a snack to nibble on with our sherry. The boquerones, a personal favourite of mine, were amazing with none of the harsh vinegar associated with the cheaper variety, just fresh and light cured fish. The cured meats had a good selection and included several Iberico based cuts. Salty hot Padron peppers went super quick from our table (none of mine were spicy though, worse luck). White asparagus with a pistou (?) and olives was great, with a tomatoey nutty sauce and light pure asparagus.

Garlicky broad beans Serious boquerones Beautiful cured meats The Padrons went fast Veg tomato stew with quail's eggs White asaparagus with pistou and olives

Gambas and lemon Spanish "baba ghanoush" Mushroom and truffle toast Chocolate figs and Spanish "non-nougat"

A final flurry of simple grilled prawns and a baba ghanoush with flatbread brought us to a close. But when asked if we were still hungry we couldn’t resist, and were rewarded with a plate of grilled mushrooms and truffle. Finally we were stuffed but asked for a tiny sweet. The suggestion was chocolate covered figs and Spanish “non-nougat”. A small board of them was brought over, the perfect end to an indulgent meal.

There were lots (and lots!) of courses, someone mentioned 12 perhaps along the way. All were extremely good, with a focus on simple Spanish combinations made excellent by the standard of produce and presentation. The wine list had a Spanish focus (as you might expect) and we had a really delicious bottle at £27, beautifully smooth and very easy going with the food. All in all, it came to under £45 a head with 2 bottles of wine between 4, an absolute bargain. They told us about their plans for opening a more casual tapas bar at the front so I’ll be finding excuses to walk up the hill and pop in. Definitely worth a trip out to sample the Spanish delights and wonderful hospitality.