Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Encore Un Fois - Perhaps Not

I feel my role is as much to recommend good places to go as it is to offer a full review of as many restaurants in London that I eat at. But clearly, in the normal course of my daily appetite, which naturally must be served three times a day, and regrettably too often away from home, I will eat at places that I wouldn’t want my readers to hurry to.

Today’s entry is a place that would fulfil this criterion. It wasn’t terrible. I just wouldn’t want to recommend it when London boasts so many great places to eat. Fortunately the occasion was always going to outshine the food so the disappointment in this regard was easily recompensed by the rip roaring good time that was had by all.

Café Des Amis, in the heart of London’s trendy West End (that phrase is in desperate need of updating – perhaps “in the pelvis of London’s sex district”, or “in the think tank of London’s media district”) is a long term relic of a time when anything with a French name on a menu in London was seen as exotic and sophisticated. Fortunately we have moved on from this time, and though the general feel of the place implies that Café des Amis haven’t, their cooking does suggest that their 25 year tenure is deserved, albeit rather unspectacularly.

A bunch of 8 of us took over their private room for lunch, as we suspected that our rowdiness might distract other diners from their quiet food. We had much to discuss, and by pretending it was in secret, it lent the whole event some much needed gravitas. The rooms itself didn’t really work and I really wouldn’t suggest any of you were to hire it except for ironic purposes, although I did enjoy the sense of having our own room with nice first floor windows onto a busy Covent Garden street.

The menu had all the typical features of a dated French bistro – onion soup, moules, oysters – as well as a few things I had no idea about. What on earth is an eblysotto? Why put it on your menu. As irritating as I find non French restaurants writing a menu in French, I find it more so when you encounter a term so remote (even for the French apparently) that the waitress gets to use her knowledge of the term to slap you around your peeg eegnorant English face with.

I opted for moules marinière (concerningly misspelled on the menu) to start with and then steak tartare to follow. The moules were vile. I should have known not to order something a) that is misspelled, and b) that is never as good as in the South of France, where they are positively orgasmic. I am at pains to say whether there was not enough sauce or too much, because though there was just a dribble in the bottom of the bowl, it was enough to repellently kiss all the shriveled up little molluscs to make their death a tragic shame. Good moules marinière should have a strong wine flavour to the sauce, and big juicy moules, and plenty of sauce to mop up with nice baguette afterwards. This could not be said of their effort. Things did look up with the steak tartare which was nicely flavoured, spicy, and heavy in what I believe is known as umami, but is normally just pronounced “mmmm”. I had “triple cooked chips” which I think must have been a joke. Either that or the chef didn’t know how to count. The others were relatively well satisfied with theirs. No one was sick, no one vowed this to be the best meal they had ever eaten. But given the prices, we could have reasonably expected to be a little more impressed than we were. One of our group, a virgin meat eater having recently (last week) converted from being a lifelong vegetarian, had the duck. Even he said “I’ve had better”.

Puddings were pudding. Sweet and sugary and stuffed in when I thought nothing more would go in. I don’t really remember these too much. Maybe it was because it was too long ago. Maybe because I was drunk. Either way, I won’t be hurrying back. I don’t even know if I’ll be welcome.

Café Des Amis

11-14 Hanover Place (off Long Acre) 
0207 379 3444

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

I am not sure how to define moreishness, or what makes food moreish. Is moreish food good or just moreish? Should you draw dividing lines between food that is pleasurable whilst eating, but unpleasant immediately afterwards, like MSG-loaded Chinese (which I have now turned my back on), or a Big Mac, and food that is perhaps less immediately rewarding but which you don’t have to endure a seizure to enjoy.

And so with this in mind, we went last night for our three-monthly fix of that sweet, sweet horse. Or sauce. Le Relais de Venise, or L'Entrecôte as it is colloquially known, is a group of 5 or 6 French bistros with a true USP: a secret sauce, the recipe for which is the most guarded French item of the 20th Century. There is no menu. Everyone eats the same thing in a kind of upmarket overpriced post-ironic school canteen kind of way. We went to the (London) original, on Marylebone Lane, but they have recently decided to branch out, and have opened in the City also (I hear this one has had a few teething problems so if you are thinking about trying, stick to Marylebone). Also worth noting is the fact that you can’t book, which means there is normally a bit of a wait, however much like Tayyabs a couple of weeks ago, they don’t hang about in here, so the wait is not normally more than 30 minutes.

We ate early last night due to her new hours. By early, I mean most Northerners still hadn’t cranked up the microwave for their tea by the time we sat down. I think there was a group of Spaniards just finishing lunch as we ordered. But fortunately for us, there was no queue.

The only specification you give to the quaintly-dressed French waitresses is how you would like your steak cooked. So once this had been done (a scribbled R next to me and M next to her – Alan Yau nicked the idea), our starters arrived. To start with, they serve a limp green salad with walnuts and mustard vinaigrette, and some defrosted baguette. They must sprinkle a bit of the crack that they put in the steak sauce in the dressing also, as despite the unimaginative leaves, you find yourself licking the plate dry and scraping the average bread around it. This initial feeding frenzy over, they then hurriedly bring you your first helping of steak frites. The steak is thinly sliced, cooked exactly to our order, and is drenched with the secret sauce. The sauce is very good, which it clearly needs to be. It is buttery and herby, with tarragon, shallots and butter the standout flavours. The meat is fine. Nothing more. As it is so thinly sliced, you lose the satisfying juicy cuts that make steak just a staple food, but it done to ensure that every sliver is coated with their million dollar sauce. The chips also are just ok. Fairly greasy and a little bit McDonalds-esque, they satisfy the main credentials of the rest of the meal, that of greedy scoffable moreishness.

They smartly serve you half your steak and chips with your first helping (keeping the canteen feel going) and then as soon as there is enough room on your plate, they come and pile on the remaining half. The chips stay nice and crispy as a result and the portion is so generous that even I struggle to finish it.

So all in all, the meal is a pleasurable and familiar experience. There are a number of frustrations with the place. They definitely take the simplicity thing a little far – there’s no butter for the bread (a constant irritation for me), a few vegetables might add something to the main course and of course, the bill always manages to add to the already ill feeling you have once you’ve finished. Dinner for two normally comes to about 50 or 60 quid, once you have had a glass of wine from their short but classically French wine list, and some nice vanilla ice cream to satisfy any last morsels of remaining greed. But even knowing all this, I will return. They have cracked the formula it seems. Their costs are low, to match their variety, but the dining room is full from 6.30 to 10.30, and with 140-odd covers changing over at least 3 or 4 times over the evening, you don’t have to be a Euro banker (of which there are a fair few present) to work out that these sauce peddlers know a thing or two about making money. 

Le Relais de Venise

120 Marylebone Lane

020 7486 0878 

Monday, 9 November 2009

Eating on the Dock of the Bay

I didn't really fancy going anywhere special this weekend. Partly down to an occasional reflex pullback on spending after a period of higher consumption, and partly down to the anticipation of a costly Christmas season.I have eaten out at new places an unusual amount in recent weeks and a period of quiet contemplation seemed to be in order this weekend. However, I woke up with a hangover on Saturday after too many drinks at my erstwhile local (formerly the Marylebone Tup, now irritatingly just called "The Marylebone"), and was in the need of some soul food.

We dismissed the usual places as I was in a difficult mood, and instead decided to visit the all new Dock Kitchen, down at the end of Ladbroke Grove. Situated in "Portobello Docks", a very open urban space for designers and other people to showcase their stuff, the café is annexed off from the end of the furniture showroom. And it is very deconstructed. The guys behind the place are former River Café-ers, Stevie and Joe (I think Joe may still be at the River Café), and they have brought with them all of the skill, but none of the prices. The whole place actually feels like a pared down River Café. The kitchen is open, and possibly the calmest kitchen you have ever seen. The place is not so much bright, as an actual greenhouse (on this sunny November day, with fragile head, I felt like a was being slow cooked) and there is water of sorts to add further calming influence. The place feels less like a café or restaurant and more like you have wandered into the house of somebody much cooler than you. There were a few families who all seemed to know each other, one or two celebrity foodies with their kids – foodie kids are always instantly recognisable by their casual nonchalance at complex ingredients which might frighten or baffle a less educated diner: “mum, pass that okra down when you’re done with it, and you must have some of this brill, if you’ll forgive me the obvious pun” and so on.

We got there with breakfast or brunch in mind, and with no set menu, the waiter generously said that the chef could knock us up a bacon sandwich, or some muesli with pomegranate (how they roll round here), or some toast. Loving their laid back approach, and seizing the initiative whilst she was on the phone, I ordered everything. Then I realised that they were doing a lunch menu in half an hour so unordered everything apart from the toast (the hangover hadn't gone anywhere).

The lunch menu was simple and great. Three starters, three mains, five puddings. And a leafy clementine for 40p thrown on the end (I had two - they were amazing - they came from Italy, so I was quite pleased with the pricing). And from chatting to the waiter (quite matey by now), we worked out that they cook what they feel like cooking. Seasonal, bit of French, bit of Italian, bit of Indian. When I asked what sort of food they were going to do, the answers made me feel like I'd been strait-jacketed into society. I rued giving myself away as mainstream so early.

We shared starters of chickpeas and lentils in a broth with chorizo, morcilla and chilli, and deep fried okra, cauliflower and curry leaves. They were simple, flavourful and great. I stuck my flag in the broth, her the deep fried stuff, and we happily enjoyed "sharing". The broth was nicely flavoured and spiced, with generous chunks of chorizo in it. It was the sort of dish you wouldn’t really order as it doesn’t jump off the menu, but the lack of choice was my gain, as it was warming and hearty. The deep fried okra and cauliflower was light and mustardy (I think there were actually mustard seeds in the batter), and lacked any of the grease you might normally associate with food like this.

For main course, we shared pheasant and rabbit biryani, with spiced rice, pomegranate and yoghurt and this too was excellent. “Deconstructed”, like everything else here, but working perfectly together. The rice was delicate, the sauce well balanced and the bird and bunny worked well together. This was the soul food that I sought. It seemed expensive at £14 but the quality of the ingredients was high, and the starters were cheap (a fiver) so I thought fair enough.

All of the puddings sounded great (Italian Clementine granite, lemon poppy seed cake, medjoul dates) but we went for the quince tart with damson and vanilla ice cream (two puddings which we intelligently combined into one). The tart was a little too pared down for my liking – essentially cooked fruit dusted with short crust pastry but the ice cream diverted my attention with predictable ease.

This was a good meal in a great space at decent prices (about fifteen quid each). The chef knows his stuff (and his suppliers) and I suspect this might grow into something a little bigger and a little more formulaic. Get there soon before anything changes too much.

The Dock Kitchen 

Portobello Docks

344/342 Ladbroke Grove

0208 962 1610.

Monday, 2 November 2009

East Meets West

East London is a long way away. To a tribal Londoner like me, East London and South London are similarly foreign. However the difference between East and South is that there used to be no reason to go to either, but now, East has become cool. And popular. And rife with the type of laid-back well-sourced reasonably-priced food that I love. So I have to go there from time to time.

I have been meaning to go to Tayyabs for some time now. It has been open for 37 years, 26 of which I have been alive and 25 of those 26 have been spent eating “solids”. So it really is long overdue. To those of you who either don’t read any London restaurant propaganda, don’t work in the city, or aren’t Punjab families living by Whitechapel Road, you may not be familiar with Tayyabs. It is one of those places that people like to brag about being “in the know” about, despite there being a massive queue outside every evening. It is said to serve “the best curry in London” for less than the price of the cab it takes to get there.

Our first error was getting a cab there from Edgware Road. Some oddball asked if he could share our cab. That doesn’t happen when you are going to Hampstead. Oddballs don’t go to Hampstead. Anyway, we got there an hour later to be greeted by a scene that looked like Cuckoo on a Friday night, only more BYO. Fortunately, one of my more intrepid and shameless friends had been holding our table for 15 minutes against the tsunami of diners, both in and outside the restaurant. So we wedged ourselves into our seats, wriggled for a bit of elbow room, and studied the reassuringly brief menu. Everything sounded great, so that is what we ordered. As I was getting to the end of my ordering, food started to arrive. Five minutes later, it had all arrived. Most of it was very good. Some things were spectacular. The sesame naan, the peshwari naan, the barbecued tandoori lamb chops (which I hear are well known), in fact all the dry spiced meat and the dhal were memorable. The flavours were sharp and different, and none of the food left you with that typical post-curry heavy feeling that makes functioning afterwards so difficult. We cooled our palates with Tayyabs answer to a mini milk and before you could say “it took longer to get here than I did to eat”, we had been turfed out onto pavement, stinking like an Indian kitchen, so they could squeeze in another 12 seatings before the hour was out.

The food is great and the prices embarrassingly low (fifteen quid each), but I won’t be hurrying back. A restaurant for me is about more than just the food. The experience has to be taken into account. And while fun, this was all a bit too frantic and hurried to really savour the food.

In the famous words of the Pet Shop Boys, and with a tune now adopted by my sometimes shy fellow Arsenal fans, it is now time to “Go West” (or Three Nil on Saturday afternoon). Or, for some inexplicable reason, Go Westfield.

A Sunday trip to Westfield seemed like a good idea at the time. Never again. It is the least relaxing way to spend a Sunday. I feel cheated out of half a day of weekend. I was thinking about taking the morning off this morning to compensate. But such is my duty to my small but loyal readership (and apparently global – my recently installed Google Analytics tells me of my 3 readers in California, my one in South Africa and two in Australia (whom I know well!) – anyway, this makes me sound small fry), I must inform and educate on places I visit to aid in the acquisition of The Knowledge!

So where does one eat at Westfield. The options are many. And I suspect all would have been better than the one we chose. “The South Terrace” boasts the same collection of restaurants that you find on any typically soulless new promenade in a newly gentrified area. A conveyor Japanese, a flat pack Italian, a faux French bistro. A private equity owned alley of mediocrity. You wouldn’t think choosing badly is possible but it is. And its name is Balans.

Balans is a small chain of restaurant-cum-bars, and as they are situated in generally quite decent areas (Soho, High St. Ken) and I had received recommendation on this particular one, I thought this might be the least worst option. It may well prove to be that, although I don’t ever intend to find out.

We were first showed to a table at the far end of their al-fresco terrace, the only table with no cushions and untouched by the kindly hand of the porch heater. It looked like the naughty table. We declined and were instead offered a seat at their bar, offering a glimpse into their open plan kitchen (they are proud of this). Someone needs to tell the owners of this chain that they do not want their kitchen to be open plan. This is not like the robata grill at Roka, where you get to watch the expert chefs delicately balancing flavours. This is not the tapas bar at Barrafina, where your mouth waters as simple ingredients are perfectly combined. This is Balans. The food is pre-packed, processed and warmed up. I don’t want to know where it has come from. I try not to think about it as I eat it. I hope that by combining enough different flavours in my mouth at one time, that by thinking of the sustenance that this amount of calories will give me, that I will forget about the provenance of my meal.

The menu performs the heinous crime of offering a complete cluster”$%* of national cuisines (mezze plate, burgers, calamari, gyozas, stir fries). However, we were hungry, it was late and we had accepted our fate. I ordered the “famous Balans burger”. She had scrambled eggs with toast and a contingency plan of granola with yoghurt. We tried not to watch as they removed it from its bag, or however else they prepare it. Instead we tried to make ourselves comfortable on bar stools that ludicrously both lean forward and are too wide for the space they occupy. 25 minutes later the food arrived. By this time, and for the second time in a weekend, we stank of kitchen. Where I have economised on food this weekend, I have lost out on dry-cleaning costs. The food was predictably gross. Lazily prepared, the scrambled eggs plate was dirty, the toast was cold, and the eggs looked like they had been thrown up by an unwell chicken. My burger was soggy, under-seasoned, enveloped in nasty cheese and presented on a squidgy bed of tired chips. We shared the granola and yoghurt. A true least worst. It cost 25 pounds. I suppose that is about right, sadly. In a fair world, it would have cost ten.

The moral of the story: Stay central.


89 Fieldgate St, London

020 7247 6400


Westfield London

Ariel Way

Shepherd's Bush

020 8600 3320