Friday, December 28, 2007

Gourmet Burger Kitchen - pricey patties

The eating options in Canary Wharf are (surprisingly) pretty limited, so I was perhaps unduly excited by the opening of the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. (Though judging by the length of the lunchtime queues in the week before Christmas, I wasn't the only one.) It occupies a cave-like, window-less space under Wagamama's in Jubilee Place, the posher of the two shopping malls. The dark-wood tables and black-cad waiters help keep out any notion of daylight, while giving the venue a brisk, canteen-style aura. You order at the bar, which I guess is handy for bill-splitting. The A3-sized laminated menu focuses heavily on burgers of every possible incarnation (though whether a portabello mushroom or a piece of chorizo really counts as a burger is debatable), but there are also some salads if you are feeling healthy. I went for the bog-standard cheese burger (£6.75). The Aberdeen angus patty was juicy and flavoursome and the default "medium" cooking left it with a pleasant pink hue in the middle. The bun also featured ketchup, lettuce, tomato and raw onions. I am not sure what kind of cheese it was, but it was nice and definitely not of the luminous orange American variety. Chips, however, were a whopping £2.55 extra, plus another £1.45 for a small pot of sauce such as garlic mayo or sour cream. They were thick-cut, and not sufficiently crispy for my liking. The GBK chain was founded by a couple of kiwis, so New Zealand beers feature on the menu (I had a bottle of the rather pleasant Macs Gold ale for £3.05) and the more wacky section of the burgers menu includes a "kiwi". This concoction combines the humble beef patty with a fried egg, pineapple and..... wait for it.... beetroot. To my utter amazement, my colleague wolfed down the whole lot, shovelling away with a knife and fork as the "kiwi" was too tall to bite into. He did admit though that the beetroot may have been unnecessary... The service was very quick (especially given that most tables were occupied) and pretty cheerful. And despite the beetroot, they also do pretty decent offerings catering to those of who stick to the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy on burgers. They also do takeaway, though at these prices I'd say it's far too steep for a regular lunchtime jaunt. If I had the choice, I'd prefer a nice pub which does good burgers but also a wider repertoire of other dishes, and feels less canteen-like. But as I happen to work in the area and have yet to find such a venue, I dare say I'll be back.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Unit 24 Jubilee Place, Canary Wharf, E14 5NY; Tel. 0207 719 6408; Tube: Canary Wharf;

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Smiths of Smithfield - SOS brunch

During the week, I have to get up far too early to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and try to stay very healthy on an early-morning ration of fruit and yoghurt. So come the weekend, I am always a big fan of something more complicated and brunch-like. For this, Smiths of Smithfields is perfect. The ground floor sweeps away its thumping, trendy bar persona of the previous evening and transforms into a buzzing cafe-style haven for those nursing morning-after hangovers. It's always packed and they don't take bookings, so brunch usually starts with a drink and a browse through the weekend papers on the squashy brown leather sofas in the corner, until a table is ready. The drinks include fresh orange juice (£2.20), teas and coffees (£1.50+), a selection of "morning after" tipples including shandy (?) and a damn good bloody Mary (£5.50), as well as grown up (ie alcoholic) milkshakes (£6.50 for an “apple crumble”). Served in giant metal beakers, these are a meal (or more accurately a desert) in themselves.
I like the brunch food menu for its variety - you can have anything from a fry up (in various permutations) to a BLT to a proper main course like sausage and mash. (Sensibly though, unlike the near-by 24-hour caff Tinseltown, they don't offer Thai green curry - hang offer food that ain't, as my husband once discovered the hard way.) On the last two visits I've had the eggs benedict with smoked salmon (£8.50), served on a halved muffin and smeared in creamy hollandaise. Their macaroni cheese with haddock (£6.50) isn't bad, but not cheesy enough. The club sandwich is huge, and the BLTs (£6.50) are also pretty good. Just don't try to economise with something like egg on toast (£2.50) - you will feel very jealous when everyone else gets their food.
Other than always being very busy, the other (no doubt related) drawback is the service, which can be a bit slow and a bit inattentive, especially if you order extra drinks). But for me the food and the buzzing atmosphere tip the balance firmly in SOS's favour. Plus Santa(s) and his(their) reindeer brunch there. (Oh, ok, it was probably just real people we saw lining their stomachs ahead of Santacon, but it was still cool.)

Smiths of Smithfield, 67-77 Charterhouse Street, EC1M 6HJ; Tel. 0207 251 7950; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon;

Monday, December 24, 2007

St John, N19 - best ailoi in Archway

We are very lucky to live within about a 15minute walk of literally dozens of great restaurants. The downside though is that it's all too easy not to discover what delights (or otherwise!) lie further afield. So the invitation to deepest, darkest Archway for some live music sounded like the beginning of adventure. We stumbled upon a corner of Ireland in the middle of North London. In the Lion pub, a man was belting out melancholy songs and strumming his guitar while old, weather-worn men and women nodded along, sipped their pints of Guinness and got lost in reveries of days gone by. The slightly younger customers were more cheerful, stomping out an energetic jig in the corner. Equally character-full Irish folk looked on from slightly caricaturised, faded paintings on the dark walls. The penalty you pay for living in central London is that you'll never get a gem like this as your local. (And while it may not offer any interesting beers, the other advantage of not being in central London is that it's cheap - I paid £11 for three pints and a large wine.)
As the food on offer at the Lion didn't seem to stretch beyond mini cheddars and bacon flavoured fries, we were reluctantly forced to leave in search of sustenance. With unusual foresight, I had looked the area up in my Harden's guide and had discovered that there was a well-reputed gastro joint just round the corner called St. John. Here too the drinks de jour were whiskey and Guinness, although there were also a couple of real ales on tap and the crowd was much younger. From the chalkboard menu, the leg of lamb came with all the trimmings you would expect in a generous roast, as well as a highly-rated onion sauce. The roast half of chicken with a peppercorn jus was also amply sized and beautifully juicy. I opted for the mussels with chorizo and onions, the salty sausage contrasting well with the tender crustaceans. The highlight of the meal though was the aioli. It was proffered when I asked for some mayo to go with the delightfully crispy home-made chips. It packed a serious punch of garlic and tasted freshly made. We got through two pots. It was heaven, and worth the trek to Archway in its own right.

St John, 91 Junction Rd, N19 5QU; Tel. 020 7272 1587. The Lion public house (also known as Sweeneys), 1 Junction Road N19 5QT. Tube (for both): Archway

Thursday, December 20, 2007

St Moritz - gloriously cheesy

As someone who once managed to put on half a stone on a four-day "skiing" break in the French Alps, I have to admit to impartiality - I love fondue. And as St Moritz is the only place I know of in central London that serve fondue, I am also rather fond of St Moritz. It's located in the heart of Soho, in a small, old half-timbered house done up to look like a Swiss chalet. There's one of those long horn things on the wall, and framed postcards advertising Swiss cheese. The waitresses are dressed in Swiss national costume and the plates have pictures of cute little cows chewing on oversized daisies. Sure, it's kitsch, and it's not going to win any contemporary style awards. But to my mind, cosy and comfortable often beats stylish.
The menu includes raclette as a starter, and other Swiss specialities such as rosti. For me though, it had to be fondue. The selection includes a meat one, and a Chinese one (I guess a version of the fiery Sizchuanese hotpot), but we went for the "forestiere" - a heaven-made combination of mushrooms and cheese. I was very pleasantly surprised by the mushrooms - there lots of them, and of the proper wild, non-dried variety. The dish smelled of autumn. It came with a basket of bread, and we order a side of new potatoes for dipping as well (£3.50). If you want to pretend that you are being healthy you can also dip in seasonal vegetables. The fondue was huge and we struggled to finish it (we did of course, what kind of a cheese fiend would I be otherwise!). The wine menu is interesting. They have a large selection of whites, reds, roses and bubbles -- but they are all Swiss, as is the only beer on offer. We opted for Merlot rose from the Ticino canton (£20.95), which proves refreshingly crisp and dry for a rose, and nicely cuts through the richness of the cheese. Licking the last bits of cheese off my fork, I wished I could eat fondue every day. But luckily for Britain's obesity statistics I don't -- yet.
St Moritz, 161 Wardour Street, Soho, W1V 3TA; Tel: 020 7734 3324; Tube: Tottenham Court Road;

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Most Cafe Bar - most for beer, least for food?

We had come to the Christmas fair by Tower Bridge in search of festive cheer, German sausages and mulled wine. But – faced with an ice-cold Tuesday evening – the stalls had closed earlier than advertised and of our three quests we were only able to complete the one for mulled wine (which did come in very cute, boot-shaped cups).
Forced to look for sustenance elsewhere and too cold to wonder around aimlessly gazing in restaurant windows, we tumbled into the nearest eaterie. This turned out to be the Most Cafe Bar underneath the bridge. It was a tiny place, occupied by a large beer bar and a few tables poked around the sides. I say beer bar as that's clearly the speciality – the menu offers around 30 different varieties, spanning from an English stout to a chili beer from Arizona. Understandably, we had to try the latter. It was a normal enough looking bottle of lager, with an assuming little green chili floating inside. Taste-wise, the chili had clearly won the battle over the lager hands down – the drink tasted like some kind of accompaniment to nachos or fajitas. It wasn't overly spicy, but it definitely tasted like it should be “green”. (Does anyone else ever think foods taste of a particular colour?). Incidentally, it also didn't taste very nice and we left most of the bottle. We also sampled a cherry beer from the ever-wonderful Sam Smiths brewery, which reminded me of boiled cherry-flavoured sweets (in a good way). In comparison, my glass of house red seemed pretty dull in comparison – a fact I was secretly glad of.
The menu features some snacks (eg mezze platter, nachos), as well as robust-sounding mains from mussles to steaks. Tempted by the blue-cheese mash, I asked for a rare rib eye (11.95). The mash was indeed pretty good, as were the glazed carrots. But the steak was well done and fatty. My friend went for the scallops with the cauliflower pure (12.95) from the short specials list. She said it was nice but rather stingy portion-wise. The biggest let-down though were the olives we'd ordered to munch on before the food arrived. Despite two reminders they were served after the main courses. A small square bowl of green and black olives (nice, but looking and tasting like they'd come from a jar), an identical bowl of indifferent olive oil with a squirt of balsamic vinegar, and a third with some slices of a baguette. Nothing short of extortion at 4.50. I was tempted to send it back, but my friend needed the bread to supplement her main course.
It was a nice evening, and I might be tempted to come back and try more beers, but next time I'll eat elsewhere.
Most Cafe Bar; Horrace Jones Vault, 206-208 Tower Bridge Road, SE1 2UP; Tel. 020 74036030; Tube: Tower Hill or London Bridge;

PS After some googling, I discover that in fact the cafe is owned by a Russian lady, with the cafe's name intended as a pun since "most" is also the Russian word for "bridge". If that's the case, then it's a great shame that the only Russian beer on offer is the now readily available Baltika lager.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bedales - rest for the wicked

When you are fearlessly braving the pre-Christmas weekend shopping crush to buy gifts for your nearest and dearest, you deserve a treat. For me, such a treat came in the very welcome shape of a cosy wine bar in the new bit of Spitalfields market. The walls are lined with bottles and you can choose to crack any one of them open there and then, at the narrow table in the middle of the shop for a modest corkage of £8. (In the fully-booked St John's Bread and Wine round the corner, blackboards seemed to suggest mark ups in the £20-30 range.) We decided to take it easy though (too many Christmas parties), and opted for wines by the glass (from about £5). The food menu is short and simple, ranging from meat and cheese platters, to pates and warming bowls of soup of the day.
We ordered at the bar-cum-shop-counter, opting for a large "mixed plank" of cheese and charcuterie. It arrived on a wooden board, featuring about 4 choices from each food group and accompanied by a large basket of fresh-tasting bread from the aforementioned St John. The hard, French-style salami was the most popular, while the proscuitto went very well with the goat's cheese. About the only miss to my mind was the chorizo of the large, thin slices variety -- I far prefer it served in small, thick, warmed up chunks in a red wine sauce. There were also olives and a pot of rich -- almost too rich -- tapenade. With tip, we were stuffed for under £30 for two, and left feeling rejuvenated enough to resume the shopping. We might well return in the evening (they are open until 9-9.30 pm in the week), with some wine-knowledgeable friends, to while away a couple of hours and a couple of bottles in a convivial atmosphere.

Bedales, 12 Market Street (off of Brushfield Street), Spitalfields, E1 6DT; Tel: 020 7375 1926; Tube: Liverpool Street;

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Porterhouse - come for the porter not the food

The Porterhouse is a huge multi-leveled labyrinth of a pub, linked together with exposed copper piping. Despite its size it is frequently packed to the rafters, and so must be doing something right. The beer for starters. The place has its own micro-brewery producing three stouts, three ales and three lagers. Plus they have a huge beer menu, including beers from as far afield as Palestine and Tahiti. In the line of duty we sampled, among others, a banana bread beer from Jamaica (very banana-y, quite nice, but not sure I could manage more than a glass), a Crocodile beer from Sweden (winner of best beer award....17 years ago!) and a "sexy" beer featuring a bikini-clad lady on the bottle (scratch and the bikini disappears, so the taste of the larger is rather beside the point!). The food menu features the kind of thing you need to soak up the beer - pizzas, pies, burgers, snacky platters - with most mains around the £7-9 mark. My favourite by far was the "frying pan". It literally came served in a cute iron frying pan (atop a plate), crammed full of potatoes, eggs, onions, chorizo and other stuff and it was very yummy. The steak sandwich on the other hand was a bit of a disappointment -- the granary bread and the mayo overpowered the miserly portion of well-done steak and I couldn't trace the parmesan advertised on the menu. The accompanying chips were thick cut and nice enough, though they lose points for serving the mayo in those little Heinz sachets. The burgers were also OK, but with no great "wow" factor. So overall I'd say this is a place to come for the beer and the atmosphere (and the music - they have Irish folk sessions on Sunday afternoons), but the food is good enough to mean you don't have to leave if you get a bit peckish.
The Porterhouse, 21-22 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, WC2 E7NA; Tel. 0207 379 7917; Tube: Covent Garden or Charing Cross;

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Angelic - pre-shopping lunch haven

Somehow pushing your way around an overcrowded Sainsbury is so much more bearable if it is preceded by a nice pub lunch. (I've learned to go easy on the pre-shopping beer though, as then the contents of the supermarket trolley have a danger of veering off in to the impractical/expensive territory.) For such weekend lunches, The Angelic comes into its own. Big windows keep the white-walled room bright even in a drizzly December. There are rustic-looking wooden tables and brown leather sofas, as well as a randomly stocked book case if all the weekend papers have been nabbed by the time you arrive. On our last visit they were putting up a Christmas tree, a huge one thanks to the tall ceilings. There's a good selection of beers -- from Russian Baltika to well-kept real ales -- as well as a menu of freshly made juices and smoothies for anyone on a detox. The prices aren't cheap, but this is upmarket Islington after all. They do weekly specials for Sunday lunch (two roasts, and something veggie), but unlike a lot of places they also offer the normal menu. Before the mains, we are served a wooden board with soft white bread and dinky bowls of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, coarse sea salt and pepper. It takes the edge of the hunger nicely and mains aren't far behind. The roast pumpkin, leek and Stilton strudel is very nice, and helps convince that pumpkin is an under-rated vegetable. (I re-discovered it when in a bid not to be wasteful I fried up the Halloween pumpkin covered in flour, with apples, cream and cheese.) I was a bit apprehensive about the accompanying bubble and squeak rosti, remembering a pile of non-descript tasteless lumpy mash-type stuff that used to be served with fry-ups in Bristol's York Cafe. This version though was crisp, nicely and seasoned and delicious enough to inspire me to try my own version at home. The duck, orange and apricot sausage (£10.50) tasted strongly of the ingredients, which so many posh flavoured sausages don't seem to manage. It was served with puy lentils -- one of my favourite accompaniments -- and sautéed leeks and red currant gravy. We could have lingered there all afternoon (they have board games too), but sadly Sainsbury's was calling...
The Angelic, 57 Liverpool Road , Islington, N1 0RJ; Tel: 020 7278 8433; Tube: Angel;
PS I now have a shiny new mobile phone with apparently a decent camera, so will endeavour to sneakily capture my food in the future in a bid to make this blog a bit more colourful.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Fat Duck

It's not really the kind of place that needs a jokey headline, or much of an introduction. But it does make a rather worthy subject for my 100th post (yay!).

We planned the trip for months in advance, the booking line on speed dial for The Day Three Months before THE Day (they take bookings up to three months in advance), credit cards at the ready.

A rather unglamorous train trip from Paddington to Maidenhead, followed by a £5 taxi ride and we were standing on a narrow pavement outside an unassuming white washed, centuries old house. Inside, it was all white walls and tablecloths, sparkling glasses and dark wooden beams. The clientele was a mix of those for whom this was clearly a special occasion and those who looked they could afford to become regulars. There was a slight awe in the air, but it wasn't a stuffy, must-wear-jacket-and-tie kind of place.

We decided to go the whole hog -- aperitifs of champagne (we didn't like to ask how much, but the bill shows up about £17 a glass), the tasting menu (£115) and the accompanying wine selection (£90). I wanted to ask for tap water, but was over-ruled, so we had the £3.50 bottled stuff instead. All in all, it added up to about £250 a head. But was it worth it?...

At the end of the meal you each get an envelope of posh, strokeable paper with a Fat Duck seal, a copy of the menu concealed inside. So even though I've put off writing the review for months -- overwhelmed by the task -- I can tell you exactly what we had.

It started with nitro-green tea and lime mousse . The waitress produced a little blob, not dissimilar in appearance to hair mousse, out of an old-fashioned looking metal dispenser. She then zapped it with liquid nitrogen and told us to put the whole thing in the mouth in one go. On the tongue, it had a crunchy, frozen shell and then melted into lemony, liquidy refreshness.

A single oyster was served in its shell with passion fruit jelly and lavender , the textures matching nicely to create a slightly sweet, slithery, but not unpleasant sensation.

The pommery grain mustard ice cream was served a small, creamy coloured blob in a large white bowl, with the red cabbage gazpazcho added a little later in keeping with the theatricality of the place.

The parade of appetisers also featured jelly of quail, langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras before culminating in a three-way experience of the forest. A wooden tray of oak moss was placed on the table and "watered" with dry ice to produce clouds of foresty, mossy mist. We inhaled this while treating our taste buds to a tiny, earthy square of truffle toast and a sliver of moss jelly served in a little plastic box and eaten by letting it dissolve on your tongue. All that was accompanied by a German white, 2005 Iphofer Kronsberg Silvaner Spatlese Trocken (though I don't remember it tasting of celeriac!)

But even though the portions are tiny, this is certainly not a place you leave huyngry. Firstly, the dishes are numerous (including the appetisers, we counted 18!) and secondly throughout the meal, you can choose from a tasty bread basket selection.

Next came one of the Fat Duck's signature dishes, snail porridge. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but of all the dishes, this was the one that disappointed me most. It actually consisted of some normal-tasting porridge (though, to be fair it an unnatural shade of green), topped with normal, de-shelled snails and decorated with Joselito ham and shaved fennel and washed down with a glass of red, the 2004 Vin de Pays des Cote Catalanes, Le Soula, G. Gauby, Roussilon.

Then, to show that even molecular gastronomes aren't averse to using top-end ingredients, came the luxuriously creamy roast foie gras, served on plate decorated with streaks of cherry and chamomile sauces and tiny cubes of almond fluid gel. I was unconvinced by the jelly, though the Husband (generally a bigger fan of nursery food!) complemented it for the strong flavour. The 2003 Vinoptima Gewurtzraminder Reserve from Gisborne in New Zealand was a surprisingly nice accompaniment, considering that I don't like sweet wines.

Next another much-written-about dish. The "Sound of the sea" came accompanied by a tiny little ipod, hidden in a conch shell and programmed with swooshy sea sounds. The dish itself looked like a pebbly beach, topped with some foam and some things that may have been sea weed or sea creatures, and matched with a pungent, maritime smell. While I was not convinced by the flavours, you certainly couldn't fault it as a recreation of the sea for all the senses. It was served with Rashiku Junmai sake, which apparently has similar flavour characteristics to a Sauvignon blanc.

Salmon poached with liquorice featured a delicately flavoured (cooked sous vide?) piece of salmon, encased in sticky, sickly brown coating of (admittedly relatively mild flavoured) liquorice. It was served with two rather gorgeous spears of asparagus on streaks of vanilla mayonnaise and Manni olive oil , the latter fittingly created as part of a science project! Whether you enjoyed the dish or not I think boiled down to which side of the fence you are with regards to liquorish. The glass was topped up with 2001 Quinta da Falorca Reserva from Dao in Portugal.

Next was the Ballotine of Anjou pigeon with a very bloody black pudding, Chinese pigeon cracker, picking brine and spiced juices and a glass of gutsy 1999 Barolo from Piedmont.

The hot and iced tea was a truly amazing feat of science. The left half the cup of lemony, black, slightly sweet, slightly solidified liquid was hot. And the right half was ice-cold. You could feel the divide on your lips as it slipped down. Another one to file under "how the heck did he do that?!".

Then it was time for some rosy-coloured British nostalgia, a concept which in my mind is always illustrated by idyllic images of the British seaside and those mildly smutty seaside postcards circa 1950s. Mrs Marshall's Margeret cornet was a dinky little ice cream cone accompanied by a little leaflet. From there, we learnt that the rather pretty looking Agnes Bertha Marshall may have invented the edible ice cream cone back in 1886 and who suggested making ice cream using liquid gas more than a century ago.

The Pine-sherbet fountain was just a cute hark back to childhood, not dissimilar to those sugar fixes from the local corner shop of old.

The Mango and Douglas fir puree, Bavarois of lyche and mango, blackcurrant sorbet looked very pretty was ultimately a bit forgettable, but luckily its accompanying beverage was not. The 2003 Icewine from Pelee Island Winery, Ontario was for me the most bizarre thing on the drinks list -- they make wine in Canada?? Icewine, I discover is actually made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine, so perhaps it's ideally suited for cold climes. It was sweet, but clean and refreshing tasting, though that could have just been a psychological reaction to the word "ice" in the name.

The Carrot and orange tuile came as an odd-looking crispy lollypop, contrasted with a cube of beetroot jelly.

The Parsnip cereal came in a cute little pale green cereal box with the Fat Duck logo, and looked a bit like cornflakes. It came with parsnip milk.

The Nitro scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, pain perdu and tea jelly was truly amazing. The waitress came up with one of those shaped cardboard egg boxes, full of whole-looking egg shells into which they had cunningly put the egg and bacon ice cream mix. She then cracked the eggs into a shiny copper saucepan and zapped them with the nitrogen into ice cream. It tasted nice too - a luxurious take on breakfast in the middle of a very extravagant lunch. The accompaniment was a sweet, fruity glass of 2004 Jurancon, Uroulat, C. Hours, France.

We just about had room for the Whisky wine gums, violet tartlet before stumbling out into the daylight, about four hours after we first went in! And the verdict? Well worth the money (though probably as a once-in-a-lifetime treat).