‘Bravest of the brave, most generous of generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you’ – Sir Ralph Turner MC, Adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, 1931.
The reputation of the Gurkhas reverberates. 200 years ago the British declared war on Nepal , a spat concerning trading border disputes with the East India Company: the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-16 became known as the ‘Gurkha War’. The tone was set from the first battle at the Nalapani fort near Dehradun in India, a 600-strong Nepalese garrison led by Captain Balbhadra Kunwar holding out against 5,000 British troops for more than a month; two failed assaults led the British to resort to attrition tactics, cutting off the fort’s water supply. Unbowed after four days, and with severe loss of troops, Balbhadra eventually led his remaining 70 men through the besieging force, fighting his way out and escaping into the hills: an early example of ‘come and have a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough’. The British were simply, not quite hard enough: Balbhadra’s legacy was to become a Nepalese national hero.
Gurkhas were always ‘well ‘ard’ in my mind. I remember playing with my primary school mate Martin, jealous as he unveiled his new Airfix models: “Awww, you’ve got Gurkhas, they’re the best!”. He was told stories by his Great Uncle Arthur, who served in India with the Royal Fusiliers; famed for bravery under fire and their savagely curved Khukuri knives, they would prefer to dispatch their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, he was told; probably best to have them on your team, was the takeaway message.
Are you tipsy?
‘Je suis pompette, darling’ – tipsy, tiddly, squiffy, cockeyed, mellow, well-oiled. Oh, the white-heat given off by that second martini, the thwack of booze pulsing through a system that skipped lunch, a tingle in the fingertips, the anticipatory glee of the first chip scooping up a wobble of rouille – the joy, chips and rouille! – and a certainty that this, this my friends, is what makes eating out such a thrill-ride, such a mood lifter, the reason I’m feeling so damn cock-a-hoop about being here for dinner, experiencing the culinary equivalent of the horn.
Was it a surprise when The White Stripes belted out ‘Jolene’ at their gigs? It’s got 7 million views on YouTube, you know?
Also, have you ever been to Stoke Newington?
Kabab. Kebab. Kebap. Kabob. Kebob. Whichever of its iterations are eaten/uttered/cooked, it’s all the same family, the same flame licked DNA. Loved and cosseted as part of the national cuisine by a whole diaspora of nations, who really owns it? Nobody.
According to linguist Sevan Nișanyan, the Turkish word kebap is derived from the Arabic word kabab, with the word kebab entering the English language in the late 17th century, partly via Urdu, Persian and Turkish. The earliest known Arabic cookbook Kitab al-Tabih, annals of the caliph's kitchens written by 10th century Baghdadi author Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, mentions kabab as cut-up meat either fried in a pan or grilled over a fire. Then there is Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan explorer who travelled the medieval world, who tells us kebabs were served in the royal houses during the Delhi Sultanate period (1206-1526 AD).
Xian and the City
The first restaurant that saw me ratcheting up visits time and again, like an obsessive groupie, was A. Wong in Victoria. Obsessional, frequent, rat-a-tat visits that clocked way past 20-30 visits in record time – I was hooked, suckered, like a fish with hook in mouth.
Having caught wind of a few whispers towards the end of 2012 of something good happening in Victoria, my 'new opening' radar was twitching: the doors were soon blown open by the review from Fay Maschler in the Evening Standard. Next day saw me hammering down the Victoria line. The number of visits soon blurred into one long lunch at the bar.
The Folkestone Wine Company
Find Your Folkestone
Tubbs peers over his spectacles at me:
“I have a room for you, but I can’t confirm for another ten minutes or so, until I move a few of the rooms around.”
Checking in to The Grand Burstin hotel, a hulking cruise ship shaped edifice overlooking Folkestone harbour – built in 1984 on the site of the 1843 Royal Pavilion Hotel – I have walked inadvertently straight into an episode of The League of Gentlemen: it’s eerie, it’s dark comedy, it’s a quite unexpected way to end the evening.
What's Your Flava?
"Is it Spanish? Oh, really? I couldn’t tell because of some of the words. Not heard of Estrella. Is it Champagne?” – Sabor, 'Mayfair Joe', February 2018
I wrote this review months ago….well, I could have done. Nieves Barragán is the dynamo chef who drove the brilliance of Fino in the basement of Charlotte Street from the day they opened in 2003, then continued with the first Barrafina in 2007, the game changing Spanish restaurant that had people queueing out the door in Soho when ‘no reservations’ wasn’t really a ‘thing’ in London.
These two shining lights in London’s Spanish restaurant pantheon – owned by Sam and Eddie Hart – blitzed much of what had gone before. The roll call went something like this: best croquetas in London; best pan con tamate; best tortilla, oozing its eggy innards; best suckling pig at Fino, its crisp skinned, burnished portions to be snapped up before they ran out; best huge carbineros prawns, a shock of red slapped on the plancha, the heads to be sucked clean…and so it went on.
Campanian gem in Margate
“Down to Margate, you can keep the Costa Brava, I'm telling ya mate I'd rather have a day down Margate with all me family.” – Chas and Dave, Margate (1982)
Margate was never on my radar. Family seaside jaunts focused instead on Southend and its addictive strip of amusement arcades, when the thought of sitting in an Out Run machine (SEGA), the model car complete with real (gasp) steering wheel, gear stick, and foot pedals, was enough to send an eleven-year-old into raptures: collective 1986 minds were blown.
The Fordwich Arms
Livin' la Vida Local
“Unless you want an overpriced fancy dinner, you can now only get fancy overpriced nibbles for a lunch. No more lovely cob rolls. No sandwiches. No jacket potatoes. Now an overpriced wine bar” – Upset Local, TripAdvisor, December 20017.
It’s usually a sign that a pub is doing something right if they’ve managed to enrage some of the commenters on TitAdvisor, a forum inhabited by loonies, nut jobs and self-enraged, frothing head cases.
The League of Gentlemen comes to mind reading the woes of this one, a step away from ‘Are you local? This is a local shop for local people, there’s nothing for you here.’ Fancy this, fancy that, overpriced this, and on and on. The rare occasions I dip into this maelstrom of uppity criticisms and belching, leave me bellowing SHADDAP at the screen.
Dorking Deepdene: No One Can Hear You Scream
‘Dorking Deepdene? Does this place even exist? I’m scared.’
So we missed the train from Dorking. The last train that night, pulling away from the station as we came clattering down the station stairs in a deranged sprint from the cab – missed by five seconds. Five bloody seconds.
I blame the taxi driver, who took fifteen minutes to arrive. I blame us for not booking it earlier. That taxi arrives seconds earlier, we make the train – the bare facts. Last train from Dorking station gone at 11pm. Surrey is now HELL. Options? The final FINAL one back to Blackfriars in an hour…from Dorking Deepdene. Eh? Where The Actual F**k? A short walk away from the main station, where we are stranded. Ok, phew.
Google Maps has taken me off kilter. I’m standing in the middle of an industrial estate which has several shades of the outer reaches of edgy Brooklyn about it.
A quick call to Jöro and it's clear that the map coordinates are screwed, and I’m off back down the road, walking past Drop Dead Clothing and a hulking abandoned red brick building that is just gagging to be populated and used for something exciting, something a la mode, a food led mecca; the successes of London’s Hawker House and Street Feast come to mind.
Mr Bond....we've been expecting you.
Lamb saddle has been slicked with with black sesame butter (a wow, a woah, a yes), alongside pencil fillet (tender cut from underneath the saddle) which has enough honk to suggest it may be hogget, alongside a dinky wedge of belly with an outrageously flavoursome ribbon of fat. Slab of aubergine charred then baked with miso and scattered with sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, an infernal riff on a Japanese nasu dengaku, cooked until the flesh is all silk and satin and ‘f**k me’ worthy. An Iron Maiden rabble rouser of a dish.
Sparks Flying In Stockport
“Where the f***k is everyone?”, I feel like shouting out in the middle of the market place after walking around Stockport’s virtually deserted ‘Old Town’. The procession of grand old buildings either boarded up or with plaintive looking ‘To Let’ and ‘For Sale’ signs begins to look less like a temporary blip with each one I spot, and more like a signifier of recent history: it feels like everyone left years ago.
Full Spin Ahead
When Primeur opened in a former garage on a quiet leafy street in Canonbury three years ago, a first thought came to mind: "Good luck chaps, this is a tough spot. Hope you can make this work." It has since become my most visited restaurant in London.
The Only Way Is...Woodford?
Let’s get this out of the way first: I am an Essex boy. If anyone has early dibs on taking the piss out of Essex stereotypes, I’m near the front of the queue. Possibly first in line. Right, now that’s out of the way…
Woodford isn’t really Essex. Not really. Hugging the border of North-East London, it’s a swift ten minutes drive from Walthamstow, a short bus ride away from Leytonstone, just twelve minutes from Stratford on the tube. Essex is one mahoosive county, so let’s count ‘proper’ deepest Essex as Colchester, Billericay, Southend, Braintree, Thurrock, Maldon and friends…Woodford is Essex ‘Lite’.
The Mash Inn
Natural Born Griller
So, I hear of a place called The Mash Inn, owned by a chap called Nick Mash. First thoughts veer towards “wow, why name what was formerly known as The Three Horseshoes after yourself – bit cocky that, isn’t it?
Turns out that Nick is part of the family who now run Mash Purveyors, suppliers of fruit and vegetables to top hotels and restaurants, and with a history of farming in the area stretching back 150 years. He has also run successful food-led pubs in London. Ok mate, I’ll let you off…
This 18th Century pub sits in an almost impossibly perfect setting, atop the crest of a hill that sweeps down into the Buckinghamshire hamlet of Bennet End, near Radnage. We’re in posh country pad territory: rock singer Jethro Tull used to live a short walk away at the eight bedroom, tennis court and stables bedecked, multi-million pound ‘Pophleys’ (once coveted by a house hunting Tony Blair), a 16th Century farm now inhabited by the co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Cowabunga.
Anatolians with Attitude
“What on earth are you doing in Cockfosters”, came the incredulous, softly mocking question.
The knee-jerk response – had I offered it – would have run something like this:
“The reason I’m in Cockfosters, you cast-iron, hundred-carat, natural fibred git, is that I’m returning to a Turkish restaurant that is doing things a bit differently, with a swagger and a flicked middle finger to tradition, and I’m liking their moves very much. You dozy turd.”
The vituperative language is Stephen Fry on A Bit of Fry and Laurie from the late 80s, lifted from one of the Vox Pops in between sketches, but the sentiment is exactly the one I wanted to toss back as a return.
Grand Indian Dining in Woodford
The Meghna Grill in South Woodford. Sunday. Some time in the 80s. A sprawling buffet, a pile of massive rustling onion bhajis. The eight-year-old me doesn’t know much about this kind of exotic scarfing, but he knows what he likes. Onion bhajis, yeah, those football sized (to me) fried things, are a right touch. Can I have another one, please?
Opened in 1972 by the Bangladesh High Commissioner, Mazir Uddin’s family run restaurant closed in 2013 when he retired, and a restaurant I grew up with was suddenly no more. The site was taken over by one of the most disastrous and doomed openings I can remember witnessing. Now what’s this in its place? A top Indian? Woodford? Go do one, mate. Not possible, not likely, it’ll never happen.
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
– A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
David Muñoz stares out from the website of his three Michelin star garlanded Madrid restaurant DiverXO with an expression teetering between contempt and disgust. In another frame, he’s sticking his tongue out provocatively in a “nah nah nah nah nah” pose. Another image styles him as some sort of demented Joker. A pared back, minimalist Mohican is his bouffon of choice. “Welcome to the dream world of Dabiz Muñoz”, it trumpets.
This is chef as punk, as enfant terrible, as deviant artist, a version of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, another pose on the site showing him with right eye dramatically tricked out with mascara (he’s clearly a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film of Anthony Burgess’s novel). This droog, as Alex would have intoned, is here to shock and dazzle with cookery as performance, as spectacle and drama. He will come across to many, with all this ego-driven frippery, as a bit of a dick.
Poets and Romantics on Hackney Road
There’s a new host in town, in the form of Charlie Mellor with the opening of his wine bar and kitchen on Hackney Road. He could have been plucked from the order sheet for an archetypal ‘host’ of the medieval or Elizabethan era (big, bearded, jovial), needing just a leather apron and pewter tankards frothing in both hands to complete the look. Mellor has most recently been seen working the floor at Brawn and Primeur, as well as a previous stint as manager of Elliot’s in Borough Market. A booming classically trained operatic voice is a flourish that some may also have been privy to, on occasions at the end of service.
The Laughing Heart (named after a Charles Bukowski poem) has been a project long in the planning for Charlie, after a couple of pot holes and snags in the build-up were successfully negotiated, with chef Tom Anglesea at the helm in the kitchen. A first visit in their opening week revealed plenty to drag me back there swiftly….
Pies and Elizabethan Intrigue
Beers served in dimpled ale jugs, a kitchen already dispatching some cracking dishes, and a place ticking off the ostensibly simple pub details in the best possible way – details that don’t go out of fashion.
Several early visits to The Brookmill have shown it to be one of the pace setters, with some assured cooking that also manages to fulfil its function as a neighbourhood pub, without teetering into navel gazing ‘try-hard gastro’ – quietly classy, is the tune that’s being played here.
Leytonstone. The not so pretty drag of Leytonstone High Road is an ancient pre-Roman pathway that linked London to the sprawl of Epping Forest, its name coming from a distance marker or ‘stone’ placed by the Roman 10th Legion, the same road that runs all the way through to re-energised and Olympic ‘legacy-ed up’ Stratford.
Then I catch wind of a place making fresh pasta. No PR in sight. Say what? Worth a look…
Branding of a 'Dirty Kebab' is what seems to be going on here (despite a spurious spiel stating that they are a "healthy alternative" to the traditional image of Doner Kebabs" and a "nutritionally sound gourmet food experience"), and there’s no shame in that – in fact, it’s something of a master stroke. The branding is the clever bit, and scaleability on a global franchise model. The UK roll call stands at Birmingham, Ealing, Ilford, Southall, with Fulham Broadway opening soon. Legitimised, stamped, the kebab as brand. All the meat comes from their suppliers in Germany; brand consistency, they’re all over it. CEO Farshad Abbaszadeh grew up in Germany “munching on kebabs after a tiring football training session”, and 2014 saw him triple the number of locations in the United Arab Emirates. You can’t argue with stats like that.
The Real Thing
I first met Andy Oliver in 101 Thai Kitchen in Hammersmith, a few months before Nahm closed, just after he had returned from a six month stint at Bo.lan, regarded as one of the best restaurants in Bangkok. Prior to that he had spent two and a half years at Nahm, following on from an appearance in the final of Masterchef in 2009, via stages at Moro, Nobu, Bocca di Lupo, The Modern Pantry and Maze. He later worked on Vanduke, a Thai street food truck which was part of Alan Yau’s Bangkok café concept Naamyaa (with David Thompson consulting), which Andy went on to help launch. From there he went to lauded Thai spot The Begging Bowl in Peckham, to work for his friend and fellow Thompson alumni, Jane Alty. A few pop-ups at Bar Story while working here led to meeting business partner and front of house Tom George, and on to an extended residency at Climpson’s Arch in Hackney in 2014 – the success of this led to a Crowdfunding that rattled up to and over the required amount for their restaurant in a matter of days. Quitting his job in management with BT years ago now looked like a very good decision indeed
Having grown up in Woodford, there has only ever been one restaurant worth returning to over all of those years and that is the Pizzeria Bel-Sit, family owned and run since 1981, cash only, no reservations, and a honking foghorn announcing all birthdays as the lights dim and all the waiting staff chime in with Happy Birthday. A neighbourhood Italian to cherish. Apart from that it’s a dining desert. The most recent opening of any merit has been Max Renzland’s Provender Bistro in nearby Wanstead.
So when I hear of an opening with a ‘Michelin-trained chef’ aiming to bring ‘sophisticated dining’ to Woodford, with ‘exposed filament lightbulbs’ and ‘industrial chic’ style drop lighting, I’m immediately sceptical: I’m expecting a gaudy, Essex perma-tanned version of haute cuisine that jangles with all the worst bits of supposed ‘la-dee-da’ scarfing, with a side-order of botox and vajazzle. After several meals these knee-jerk assumptions are tossed away…
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Mayfields closed its doors in Hackney, a restaurant that began racking up the glowing reviews and then just didn’t stop, with chef Matthew Young at the helm. This time he lands with his own gig in London Fields, on the ground floor of Netil House, partnering with co-owner and sommelier Jack Lewens whose extensive experience saw him spend several years at the venerable The River Café, as well as plenty of time spent visiting vineyards and wineries around the world.
When did all things Turkish become so hip, so coveted, so damn desirable? I remember seething with fury at primary school in the 1980s whenever anyone called me a ‘Turkish Delight’ (I partly blame the Fry’s Turkish Delight chocolate bar advert for this: ‘Full of Eastern Promise’ drawled the voiceover). It drawled, I winced. Now something has changed….
Selin Kiazim opens her first restaurant after roles at The Providores and Kopapa, and a warmly received six-month residency at Trip Kitchen in Haggerston — with her Medjool date butter already on the shelves at Selfridges, this has been one of the more impressive build-ups towards a full blown restaurant we’ve seen for a while. She’s been doing more than a few things right….
Black Axe Mangal
Sultans of KISS
Mangal: Turkish, from the Arabic word manqal meaning "portable", originally referring to portable indoor heaters in Ottoman Turkey.
Why now for the love of the mangal? The original primary use of the mangal in Ottoman Turkey was for warmth, with any cooking being done as a secondary function. There are 19th Century accounts of sultans 'stretching their legs out towards the mangal, to receive the heat up to their middle' (*1). Now the word refers to both the event and the apparatus itself, a staple bit of kit in most Turkish households that is brought out throughout the year, even when it's pissing down, often consisting of nothing more than a small metal box on legs, like the one we have at home.
Fat of the land
The best damn prawn I ever ate was at Etxebarri. The famed Basque restaurant in the Atxondo valley, within striking distance of the magical eating Mecca of San Sebastián knocked me sideways from the first mouthful. This was followed by the best grilled squid, the best suckling kid, the best anchovy, the best cooked oyster...and so it went on. All of this cooked on the behemoth of a grill with its intricate system of wheels and levers for lowering and raising ingredients from the snarl and crackle of the grill, different wood used for cooking different ingredients — chef and owner Bittor Arguinzoniz's obsessional paean to grilling.
Wood grill purrs into action...
In the fervid climate of London restaurant openings, a restaurant butterfly (who me?) is finding it increasingly difficult to go back to enough restaurants, enough times, to get the warm fuzzy glow of being a genuine regular. One lunch and one dinner, even every single day, just simply won't cover it. The pace and number of restaurant openings is almost starting to PISS me off. Give us a break. Come on, this just isn't fair. It's almost cruel. Breathe.....
Clapton. The new Dalston. The old Shoreditch. The next Hoxton. The ex-Hackney. The future of Not Yet There Walthamstow. Whatever Clapton really is, it's certainly having something of a 'moment' in the same way that Brixton and Peckham have had their renaissance in terms of eating and drinking. When a Turkish kebab joint gets re-imagined and re-styled, complete with craft beer, posh coffee, and smart modern branding, it's an indicator — something is happening...
'Newly produced wines which have recently become available...'
Peering at the blackboard of recently opened Primeur it quickly becomes clear that they give a damn about the juice that's being poured. The Pignoletto from Orsi San Vito, a tiny vineyard next to a brook in Emlia-Romagna; Zanotto's 'Col Fondo' unfiltered Prosecco; Ottavio Rube white from the endearingly hippyish Valli Unite, a fellowship of self-sustainable winemakers and farmers in Piemonte — the scrawled names are hard to read on the blackboard, but it doesn't seem to matter. It is all interesting and worthwhile...
Let's consider the evidence....
UNI is a restaurant of bewildering contradictions. First impressions on walking in let off a signal flare of naffsville with an extra side order of naff — white fake leatherette seating, a round table set into a window, and a cocktail parading itself as a 'caviar martini'. Supping the first Sapporo beer finds me inwardly spluttering 'who do you think you are?', kicking off an interminable loop of the Spice Girls in my head. Geri Haliwell is whining away as an ear worm as I chow on avocado maki; not a song and food match I'd recommend.
House of Ho
Vietnamese Bobby Dazzler
Chef and owner Bobby Chinn arrives in London with a background that exemplifies a ‘melting pot’ to end all melting pots, fusing a New Zealand birthplace, Chinese/Egyptian parentage, a British education, several years in the USA, and eighteen years in Vietnam — he’s arrived with enthusiasm and energy seeping out of every pore, with stints as a stand-up comedian and time spent at the New York Stock Exchange on his colourful CV. Having staked out potential London opportunities for the last eight years, he enters the febrile landscape of London restaurant openings with the benefit of a solid international reputation, including restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon, hosting the World Café TV show on the Discovery Channel, several books, with an ardent fan in chef Anthony Bourdain lauding him as an “international man of mystery” moniker: no pressure, then.
Missive from Manhattan
Battered. Bruised. Brutal. Stepping back onto Heathrow tarmac last week, these were the three brothers running through my mind, after a delayed and nerve fraying flight back from JFK. Two of us made the jaunt, an unashamed restaurant visit. Our bodies hated us at that moment. Blind fury.
Bijou Bistro with Bonhomie
Can a restaurant be cute? Each time I walk into Casse-Croûte I want to give it a tickle and start cooing dementedly…
Yuya Kikuchi worked at Mitsukoshi restaurant on lower Regent Street for four years after arriving in the UK in 2007, having previously honed his cooking skills in Japanese kitchens in Osaka (spiritual home of Takoyaki, popularised by Tomekichi Endo), Brussels and Sydney. His education saw him attain the tricky qualification enabling him to prepare the poisonous Fugu (blowfish), strictly controlled by Japanese law and a fish which can be lethal in the wrong hands: a cheffy ‘rockstar’ skill. After three months in Paris at the beginning of 2013, he has returned to open his first restaurant on London’s Rupert Street. The grime and scuffed nature of this strip of Soho, wedged between Bubbleology and The White Horse pub, has not deterred him. No name is emblazoned on the outside, with just a couple of rough hewn tables for cheek by jowl dining, six seats in the window for solo drop-ins. He’s the only chap cooking. It’s almost comically small.
The menu sprawls over many small plates (annoyingly sporting the affectation ‘tapas’), taking in ramen, sushi and sashimi, and a couple of rice bowls. On each occasion we stick to the small plates, as this is where most of the fun seems to lie, making this little operation stand out from the current clutch of ramen kitchens and generic sushi operations. Spelling mistakes on the blackboards in a childlike scrawl have a naive charm with “breded chicken’ and ‘caperin’ (for the tiny fish capelin) the prime culprits. Cute.
The Frame Fits
Picture this. Two Michelin Star experienced Head Chefs open their first solo gig, more casual, collars loosened, cooking the kind of food that they’d like to eat. The menu kicks along at an exhilarating pace, dashing between influences, taking in smoked eel and pickled vegetables; crisp pork cheek and BBQ sauce; rabbit shoulder and mushroom ravioli; lebanese fried chicken; spiced lamb meatloaf; rare beef salad; crispy squid. Then breathe. Add a charming, experienced and enthusiastic manager as part of the package. Place in a building on Great Portland Street that you could easily pass by dozens of times without noticing. Shake it all together until a restaurant emerges: the result is a slow burner of an opening that surprises from the kick-off.
Colin Kelly and Alan Christie met while heading up the kitchens at Wild Honey and Arbutus respectively, the Michelin starred outposts from serial restaurateurs Will Smith and Anthony Demetre, while manager Tom Slegg also worked for the group — some very decent pedigree to be taking into a London restaurant arena that is becoming fiercer and more competitive at a quite dizzying pace.
One Leicester St
Fade to Grey
“I see a white door and I want it painted grey…”
St John Hotel crashed and burned on the site of One Leicester Street in quite spectacular fashion. It had stumbled into life in 2011 after months of delays, issues with the building being cited, and within a year of opening we heard the first rumbles that they may be struggling.They gained a Michelin Star but shortly after went into administration; it was sad to see them eventually wind up, the guiding hands of owners Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver not enough to keep things going. The triumphant whitewashed abattoir chic of St John has been painted over, white sterility has left the the building — dark grey is the new credo.
Let the Fun Times Roll
“You’re wasting your time mate, booked up till July…” – One of the enduring myths that swathe the hottest new gigs to open in London is that you can’t get a booking for love nor shekel. Breezing into Story on a whim saw us trump the naysayers and sit down for an unplanned lunch on a Monday afternoon — a walk-in is every restaurant’s best friend.
So here we are with the super sharp edges of The Shard glinting away like the knife in American Psycho, on the site of an old Victorian bog (now completely rebuilt like a Thunderbirds hideaway, wondering about the brutal lying whisper mill of restaurant hype which seems to be spouting the rumour that this restaurant is stuffed to the gills and doesn’t need (or want) any more business thank you very much. It’s a tricky balance to maintain between hype and business realities, but no rumour mill was going to convince me that this fledgling restaurant was going to turn away two covers bang on 12pm (£45 for a set menu of six courses), with the competition for Londoners dining pounds having never been as fierce. Two of London’s top destinations are moments away on Bermondsey Street, with Zucca serving top-draw Italian dishes at a relative snip, and the raucous and joyful tapas at José always a siren call when in the area. Even closer is the quietly consistent and excellent Magdalen; no one is in a position to be turning diners away.
The Beagle Has Landed
The sheer exhilaration of going to lunch in a former bike shed at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch, is that it necessarily is a “take the afternoon off work” kinda lunch. BYO at at a devilish £5 is the cue for pulling out finest bottles, and if the weather is cute, sitting outside being sunned while sinking some very fine juice feels as good as it gets in London. Press the buzzer, enter the schoolyard, sit down in a bike shed.
Hearing that James Ferguson, former Head Chef of Rochelle Canteen is the man behind the stove at Beagle, was enough to bring back plenty of those sunny memories. I remember a mutton pie for four, suet crust; an unimpeachable crab on toast; some fine duck rillettes; Camel Valley rosé slipping down a treat on an outside table: it was always good.
American Psycho in London
‘This is not an exit’. American Psycho begins and ends with blood red lettering. The business card for STK London could double for the front cover; blood red stilettos, a meat cleaver (knives are a bit sissy round this way) and a beef fore rib swinging from a hook. A re-imagined Sweeney Todd for the vajazzled generation. I blame Sharon Stone for starting it all with that ice pick in Basic Instinct.
‘Not your Daddy’s Steakhouse’ is how they’re positioning themselves, this the language designed to hook the crowd in. Lady steaks. I am a ‘laydee’ you know? It’s a laydees steak for the laydee appetite, in a laydee environment: whatever that is. Dainty. Dinky. Slinky. Sparkly. The way the laydees like them. Now pass them a Cosmopolitan please barman, this is what the Sex and the City girls drink. Apparently. I’m not a laydee. Can I come in?
4am Foie Gras
At the top of the Heron Tower on Bishopsgate on the vertiginous 40th floor, a new narrative of London dining has begun; its success or otherwise relies on enough bodies being shuttled up the ear popping, stomach fluttering lift between the Dead Zone of 2-6am, a time when we should all be tucked up in bed and re-charging. If the brave 24-hour dining side of the Duck and Waffle concept is to succeed, going at it full tilt seven days a week from the kick-off, there will need to be some serious love for the place from London’s vampire diners.
London has never looked so glorious with the views up here, particularly at night where the lights appear to tremble in the far distance. The word “wow” will probably be uttered more than any other when people first arrive.
Grower Champagne Snogs Hot Dog
Champagne and hot dogs, eh? That’s where we’re at in London, in the grip of pimped up fast food Americana-esque, buried under a slew of burger openings, with fried chicken and dogs close behind. There’s something different going on behind this latest opening from James Knappett and Sandia Chang, however: some big cojones have been placed on the block with an unswerving focus on grower Champagnes as a big part of the offering. No Grande Marque big daddies. Au revoir Veuve. Je ne regrette rien, Möet. Ballsy.
Grower Champagne: why should you care? These valiant and for the most part brilliant expressions of Champagne have always been the ‘go to‘ for those of us in the wine trade, offering higher quality, more interesting wines at cheaper prices. Why so? These are the essence of what makes wine really interesting, back to the notion of the farmer growing his grapes, making his wine, from vines they have tended all year. They own their vines, grow their grapes, make their Champagne: no break in the chain. The big Grande Marque houses by neccessity of volume, buy grapes from many different smaller growers. They have big bucks to throw at marketing and advertising, lakes of free stock to throw at fashion launches and sponsored events. Champagne as a brand swaggers around like the Cock of the North. These smaller grower Champagnes offer Another Way.
Worst Sushi in London?
A restaurant no-one wants to talk about. Shout its name in the street and you may very well be lynched, a hate mob rugby tackling you in seconds, gagging your mouth and forcing you to swear allegiance to the cause: Sushi T****. “Thou shalt not reveal its name or mention it to your friends. How will we ever get a seat again if you go blabbing to all your mates? Put them off the scent, tell them fibs, send them elsewhere. This place is ours.”
Txakoli, light of my life, fire of my glass. My sin, my soul. Cha-Ko-Lee: the tip of the tongue taking an acid trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three. TXA. KO. LI.* (props to Vladimir Nabokov)
Bouncing in and out of the many Pintxo bars in San Sebastián fuelled by glass after spritzy glass of the local Basque white wine Txakoli, is intoxicating in several seductive ways. The searing acidity of the wine begins to make your temples ache, piles of ceps heaped sky high on bars make your eyes widen, and the evening cartwheels into a dizzying succession of bars, Pintxos and slivers of sweet fatted Jamón.
Back to Skool
Vowels. They’re quite useful. I mean, where would we be without them? Up SHT CRK without a PDDL, that’s where.
There is a figure bandied around that twenty-five million pounds has been spent on DSTRKT – a grand two fingered salute in these straitened times when the global economy is regarded as FCKD.
The wilful vowel drop and cocksure misspelling is an attempt at a kind of NYC chic, the logo also forming the D of the Cyrillic alphabet, hinting at some of the Bulgarian ownership. No vowels. C becomes K. A new type of “kool”.
How Deep Is Your Bling?
Arkady Novikov. Russian Big Dog and owner of over forty restaurants in Russia. Two restaurants in one behemoth of a site off Berkeley Square is how he has announced himself with his first opening outside of Russia – he’s not messing around. The Asian restaurant occupies the front of the building, a hefty 130 covers, while the Italian restaurant sprawls behind even larger.
We tried the Asian restaurant where Head Chef Jeff Styler has been installed, carrying solid experience from the Mandarin Oriental group, Roka in London, and a period in Japan honing his sushi and tempura skills.
10 Greek Street
You can ascertain everything about a restaurant just by glancing at their wine list. That’s my ballsy opinion on wine. Everything. If I can’t carry you with me on this “everything” journey, then let’s just say everything you need to know about the aspirations of the kitchen, the aura of the place, attitude of the owners, ambitions of the restaurant – it’s a magical worm hole that drives right to the heart of the whole shebang, a crucial indicator, a window into the soul of the gig.
One moment distilled my extreme knee-jerk restaurant analysis, a realisation that I had seen one of the bravest lists ever. Looking at the Noma list online in February 2010, two months before being named the world’s best by the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best”, I was delighted and shocked to see their almost fascist focus. It was almost exclusively grower Champagne, Burgundy, Germany, Piemonte, Austria, bit of Northern Rhône – that was it. No Bordeaux, no New World. These more fragrant, delicate wines were deemed to be a finer foil for their food. I knew it would be my kind of restaurant. The driving force and confidence of the sommelier Pontus Eloffson showed a swagger I liked.
Jeremy. Dear Jeremy. Darling Jeremy. The biggest transfer of the season is that of Jeremy Lee from Blueprint Café to Quo Vadis, the dining equivalent of a big money Premier League switch. He has pedigree, caché, and is a game changer of the highest order. Sam and Eddie Hart have pulled off a massive coup, convincing him to cross the water and leave his beloved Thameside view behind, luring him with a stake in the business as well as transforming the kitchen. He brings his own infectious brand of bonhomie and joie de vivre to what was already a handsome stage of a dining room, if missing a certain “something” – Enter stage left, Jeremy Lee.
A loyal servant to behemoth London restaurant group D&D for sixteen years at Blueprint, it always felt like he deserved a more accessible, central location where his confident yet modest brand of unwaveringly British cooking could be enjoyed by a new audience. Welcoming him to Soho feels so right, his flamboyance fitting right in with echoes of Soho’s most Bohemian excesses. It’s as if it was always meant to be.
The New Era
From the ashes of a metal trailer on the blustery Southbank beside The Thames, Pitt Cue will emerge to send smoke signals from a bricks ‘n’ mortar building in Soho.
Four frenzied months of serving pulled pork, beef brisket, wings and Pickle Backs garnered plenty of praise over the summer of 2011 (I was helping out, it was a blast), and now Tom Adams and Jamie Berger have joined forces with Richard “Hawksmoor” Turner and Simon Anderson to make a temporary gig permanent, a whisker away from Carnaby Street W1.
Something in the Eyre?
Big Dog. Stalwart. Old School. Maverick. Guru. Ground-breaker. David Eyre merits all of these tags and maybe a few more. He’s been grooving to his own tune for so long, at the top of his game, that it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten about what it means to be a “stayer” in the restaurant game. Caught up in the thrill of the new, the hot, the zeitgeist and the breathless pace of London restaurant openings, we could perhaps do ourselves a favour by taking a moment to survey the scene. Who has stayed the course? Who is still consistently brilliant? Who do we still want to visit after ten years of their opening? There are a handful. Moro in Exmouth Market, Sam and Sam Clark quietly going about their business after fourteen years. Jeremy Lee at Blueprint Café still delights twenty years later. The Square is set to celebrate twenty years this month, and still inspires a little joyous skip as you walk inside. Then there is the The Eagle pub in Farringdon – which David just happened to have opened himself in 1991 with Michael Belben, and is noted for leading the charge of the “Gastropub”, the first pub in the land offering food of restaurant quality in a pub environment.
It just ain’t Cricket
If you’re really clever, really rich, or really talented in any field, you don’t need to shout about it. You do your thing quietly, confidently, and don’t need to impress your brilliance on everyone you meet – excellence will reap its own reward. Cigalon is just such a restaurant.
Taking its name from the French for “cricket”, the chirping insect found in warmer climes, this particular little grasshopper wannabe finds itself on Chancery Lane, plum in the middle of the land of law courts and lawyers – you’ll see a bewigged chap now and then scurrying down an alleyway to a building where he’ll say things like “M’lud”. Or something like that.
Made In Camden – Cool for Katz
Apple risotto. It’s a bold, swaggering, confident chef that has the temerity to think of putting it on his menu. Dishes like this are almost an unspoken challenge, a gauntlet thrown down, a “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” slapped in front of the diner. So the gloves came off.
Josh Katz is impressing his own distinctive culinary style in a venue famed for its own creative snap and crackle, Camden’s Roundhouse, a charity venue that helps to realise the potential of young people in the Arts – live music, theatre, new media, even a bit of circus thrown in too. His CV parades Ottolenghi as a big influence.
Capote Y Toros
Iberico, Bull, Cape —
Cheeky Capote Y Toros
Iberico cheeks. The sordid thrill of seeing those two words on a menu saw a casual read of the menu turn into a frantic grabbing of the last two stools.
This sherry and tapas bar from old hand Abel Lusa of Cambio de Tercio, personifies the flourish of the matador’s cape (capote), and the dazzling colours of the flamenco dancer, the space a garish blend of pink, red and yellow. Influence of the bull (toros) is all around this tiny venue, and on the art hung on the bright walls. A clattery atmosphere jangles the nerves, but adds a welcome note of bonhomie and Andalucian style.
Pollen Street Social
Pulp Fiction in Mayfair
His life-long dream, to own his own restaurant – a humble goal, that’s all he wanted. Now it’s happening, and within hours Jason Atherton has Thomas Keller swanning into the room, headed straight for the kitchen. Daniel Boulud breezes in behind him. Maschler is on a table of four, notebook flourished. Rayner carouses on a table for six nearby with Jacquesson Champagne. Pressure? Expectation? Just the beginning of the maelstrom which will be swirling around 8-10 Pollen Street W1S.
The Social Room Bar is the life of the restaurant, a space to drop in and out of casually. It’s smart too, very smart. Martini is as crisp as a winter’s morning, glass frosted within a degree of its shatter threshold – the kind that has has you enraptured at the thought of almost frozen spirit charging your veins with other-worldly energy. A chiselled and pristine, clear as glass block of ice is the big f**k you of the cocktail bar-tender. We’re hardcore, we’re the real deal, now how dry would you like this Martini? Sahara, please.
What’s the Story Dim Sum Glory?
Dim sum can become a fetish. I reel off my favourites in a hypnotic mantra: Min Jiang, Pearl Liang, Yauatcha, Hakkasan, Princess Garden of Mayfair, Royal China Club, Royal China Queensway, Dragon Castle…
Andrew Wong has re-furbished and re-styled the family restaurant, formerly known as Kym’s, emerging with an open kitchen, a bright and airy dining environment, and bar seating perfect for strategic dim sum raids — impulse dim sum, quick hit, job done. It becomes even more of a possibility when the menu states that you can order each one by single piece, something I’ve not encountered in London before. It must be an annoying faff for the kitchen if you’re piddling about with single piece orders, but this freedom shows a real love for the dumpling from the chef. Having travelled across China for ideas and inspiration, his menu starts with Chinese street snacks, through dim sum, touching a few classics along the way. He’s also in the kitchen every damn service I turn up for, clearly working every shift the rota sends; as is Natalie, his ebullient restaurant manager.