Saturday 26 June 2010

Byron - London

It would seem I’m quite possibly the last food blogger in London to eat at Byron, I’ve no idea why I haven’t visited before, but the opportunity just seems to have kept eluding me. What makes this apparent oversight even more surprising is the fact that Byron is extremely well regarded for their burgers, by those ‘in the know’, with even such luminaries as Giles Coren among those heaping plaudits upon it, and as regular readers of this blog know… I love a good burger.

Byron appears to punch well above its weight. Although price wise it inhabits the territory of more mundane high street chains, its burgers are often compared favourably to more premium priced offerings such at Hawksmoor and Goodman. (Incidentally, I consider Hawksmoors burger to be the best in London).

So, just a bit of a reputation to live up to then.

I rocked up on a beautiful sunny lunchtime to the most recently opened Byron outpost, located in Covent Garden and took some time to admire the shopfitting, it appears to be an old pub, and its quite obvious some serious attention to detail has been lavished on the place with the awnings and old fashioned signwriting on the windows.
The interior was equally impressive, with high ceilings, leather clad booths and the inviting smell of grilled meat wafting from the open kitchen area running along the back.

Taking a booth seat, I already knew what I wanted to order…once again I’d picked the brains of my Twitter pals, and ‘knew’ that the general consensus considered the ‘Byron’ to be the burger to order, the courgette fries were good, as were the onion rings…. oh and the Oreo Cookie milkshake was excellent. Purely in the interest of research, I decided to order all of these things.

My milkshake arrived first residing in a large stainless steel beaker, frosted and glistening with condensation, the butter coloured ice cream spotted with blitzed Oreo cookies. I had a sip, and yeah, the recommendation I’d received was spot on. It was bloody good, really rich and thick. Great stuff.

Everything else arrived all at once; ignoring the side dishes for the moment I surveyed my ‘Byron’ burger with a critical eye. As mentioned previously on this blog, there is some debate within the food blogger community about what constitutes the perfect burger bun. There seems to be a general agreement that a Ciabatta bun (as preferred by Hache) is bad. A Brioche style sweet bun, as favoured by a few of the more premium purveyors of burgers (including Hawksmoor) is considered to be the best. A floury soft ‘bap’ falls somewhere between these two extremes, and this is what I saw before me sandwiching my burger.

As well as the obligatory slice of tomato, some red onion and lettuce my ‘Byron’ came graced with melted cheese, a crisscross of rather good bacon and a slick of ‘Byron Sauce’. The burger itself looked suitably juicy, chargrilled and thick – time for a bite.

All Byron’s burgers are cooked medium as standard, and it was nice to see a pink interior as I took my first chomp.
Yep, no doubt about it – Bryon do a cracking burger, rich meaty and moist, as evidenced by the juice dripping onto my plate which had somehow managed to evade the soft bun, nevertheless it was doing an admirable job of soaking it up. Although I think I'd prefer to see a brioche style bun instead, I just think it tastes better.
All of the other component ingredients did their parts, contributing to the whole, no complaints.
I liked the Byron burger a lot.

A quick word about the sides,
The Onion Rings looked like very good examples, being ensconced in a very light, crisp looking batter and puffed up nicely, and yep they were good as they looked.

The Courgette fries were pretty good as well, and made an interesting diversion from the standard fries, which if I’m honest were a bit of a weak point when stacked up alongside such a well-made burger.
They were slightly limp, and just a bit ordinary, perfect fries in my opinion need to be really crisp, and these didn’t quite cut it.

Overall, I’d say Byron does an extremely good burger, and it does fare well against some of the better offerings in London. It's Burgers certainly aren’t as good as Hawksmoor's, Goodman's or Bob Bob Ricard's, but the quality isn’t that far off, and considering it comes in at somewhere close to half the price, I’d say that’s pretty damn impressive. Certainly just the job for anyone looking for a more readily accessible, quality burger fix in London at a more affordable price.


33-35 Wellington Street

Tel 020 7420 9850

Thursday 24 June 2010

The Royal Well Tavern - Cheltenham

Hello readers.
I have a short announcement to make.

In just a few short weeks, I’ll be exchanging the beautiful shires of Essex for another location in this green and pleasant land. I’m moving to the South West, Bristol to be exact.

Now, before the national authorities are alerted, roadblocks are thrown up and mass panic sets in across Britain, rest assured, nothing will change with regards to the blog, it will still be ‘Essex Eating’, I’ll just be ‘On Tour’.

I can also assure you that I’ll be bringing a certain Essex ‘something’ to the Bristol food scene. (What that ‘something’ is exactly, who knows…. and no, its not an orange perma-tan and a scorching case of crotchrot…errr… ok… as well as those things, I shall bring ‘something’ else, and it shall be good).

I’ll still be back to both London and Essex on a regular basis, so don’t even think of sloping off to get your foodie fixes elsewhere…. I’ve got my beady eyes on all of you. OK?

Now you’re up to speed with what’s going on in my life, lets talk about Cheltenham of all places.

Whilst idly venturing out to explore places in the South West prior to my move, almost on a whim, I decided to visit Cheltenham. I’ve never been there before but I’d heard it was a very nice place indeed.
Deposited at the train station (which I might add is bloody miles outside town), in blazing sunshine, I trudged along a tree-lined avenue towards the centre.

I’d asked on Twitter for lunch recommendations beforehand. It is such an amazing resource for just that type of thing. Follow (and be followed) by the right people, and finding a superb personal recommendation for lunch instantaneously, no matter where you are in the country is as easy as asking. I find it invaluable.

A few people had mentioned that The Royal Well Tavern was just the place for lunch, and I was even supplied with a link to a very complimentary Jay Rayner review from last year, where he extolled the virtues of their bargainous Prix Fixe menu. It sounded spot on to me and I planned to head there, but first….

Cheltenham is supposedly a lovely place, but I needed to exhibit my knack for gravitating towards the complete arse end of town. True to form, my talent didn’t let me down. I was soon scratching my head, wondering where the nice areas were, whilst surrounded by rubbish pubs and pound shops. Less than impressed with what I’d seen so far, I headed back to find the restaurant.
Luckily, I stumbled across many much nicer parts of town on the way there. Cheltenham’s honour remains intact.

Poking my head around the door, my first impressions of The Royal Well Tavern were good. Dark wood panelling and heavy gilt framed portraits give the look of a Victorian gentlemen’s club. It’s nicely done and there’s a rather pleasant relaxed atmosphere.

The good first impressions were reinforced by a friendly welcome as I was seated and a jug of tap water being proffered without being asked for (Seems to be almost the norm nowadays, seems like a lifetime ago when restaurants regularly fleeced you with bottled water and made you feel like a classless cretin if you dared to ask for water a la tap).

Along with some bread, and some local butter, a bowl of cornichons were placed on the table for me to nibble on – nice touch.

Ordering the Prixe Fixe menu, three courses for £12.50, I looked forward to my first course, which didn’t take long to arrive.

A steaming hot, verdant green, bowl of Asparagus Soup impressed me straight away. Its creamy almost foamy consistency was incredible, it was perfectly seasoned and it tasted beautiful, light and fresh. I doubt I’ve eaten better anywhere else. I could have happily eaten another bowl.

My main of grey mullet, lentils, bacon and aioli arrived nicely presented and again, as with the previous dish, perfectly cooked and seasoned. I seriously enjoyed it. From eating this and the first course, it gave me the real impression that there were some skilled chefs at work in the kitchen.

The dessert of Raspberry Bavarois was nicely done, being just the right side of sour and not too sweet. Not quite as knockout great as the first two courses, but good and a perfectly judged way to end lunch.

Whilst eating, I could see into the open kitchen, and the two chefs working away seemed very young indeed, I’m not sure if this is because I’m getting older myself, but nevertheless bearing in mind their apparent youthfulness I was amazed at the quality and the assuredness of the cooking.

So, three excellent courses for £12.50. It’s hard to complain about that, and I wont.

I really enjoyed lunch at The Royal Well Tavern, the food was seriously good, the service was exemplary and the Prix Fixe option is a complete bargain.

I only wish there were more restaurants like this, so I could lunch cheaply in such style more often.

The Royal Well Tavern
5 Royal Well Place
GL50 3DN

Telephone: 01242 221 212

Thursday 17 June 2010

Graze Bar and Chophouse - Bristol

Right now, I am in the dubious, and possibly envious position of being a man of leisure.

You may, or may not be aware, but I was made redundant from my job a couple of months ago and, while I consider which potential future career path I should amble down, I’ve been eating in a lot of restaurants, a hell of a lot in fact.

This past week, whilst practicing my newfound leisure/thinking time in Bristol, I ate at a hand full of places, but Graze Bar and Chophouse located on the corner of Queens Square stood out as being particularly good.

In a bit of a diversion from their more traditional pubs, the owners; Bath Ales (makers of the superb 'Gem' Ale), have built what could be best described as a contemporary take on a classic British Chophouse, and a very nice job they’ve done of it too.

The whole place looks fantastic; successfully merging an almost traditional tiled butchers look with a more modern vibe and incorporating some nifty design touches, think steak knife coat hooks and a cow divided up into various cuts wallpaper.

I was extremely pleased to see a menu bristling with exactly the sort of classic British grub you’d hope to see from a restaurant describing itself as a Chophouse, Ox Tongue and Coleslaw sandwich anyone? How about baked beans on toast with black pudding?
But although there being an obvious emphasis on meat, the menu is split pretty evenly between fish, a nice selection of salads, and my favourite - tasty dead mammals.

‘E’ and I decided to share a starter from a section of the menu titled ‘on toast’ which interestingly, doubles up as a kind of all day brunch selection.
Mushrooms, Tarragon & Cream arrived, two slices of toasted sourdough heaped with mushrooms, swimming in a rich buttery tarragon cream sauce, bloody hell it was good…cursing the fact that I hadn’t ordered one to myself and that we’d decided to share we blatantly and selfishly fought for a decent share of the food. Cracking, good simple rustic grub, well done. I could eat it all day long.

I struggled to choose a main, there being so many things I wanted to try on the menu, but settled for a dish befitting a chophouse, Pork Chop with braised Pig Cheeks and Black pudding sauce.

What eventually arrived was what could best be described as a tower of pig. Goggle eyed I viewed this vision of porcine massiveness from every angle, a potato cake straining under the weight of a massive pork chop, itself mounted with a mound of braised pig cheeks and as if this wasn’t enough, decorated with two slices of pancetta; and finally, just to underline the sheer meatyness of it all, a rich black pudding sauce encircled the whole dish.

A solitary tear of joy ran down my cheek, it was almost too beautiful to eat, and I swear I heard a feint oinking noise as I dug in.
Lovely, seriously good. If I had any complaint, it would be that the pork chop seemed a bit tough, slightly overdone perhaps and that it was such a ridiculously huge portion of food, I struggled to finish it.

While I’m on the subject of ridiculously sized portions, I must mention the side order of mash potato. It was beautiful, very nicely made, creamy, everything you could ask for in a mash – but seriously, there must have been a whole bag of spuds in there. ‘E’ and I gave the mash a serious workout, but it was never-ending…. honestly, four people could have shared such a behemoth side order of mash and struggled to finish it. Priced at £2.75, I’m wondering how they make any money on it.

‘E’s main of Fillet of Cornish Pollock with New Potatoes, Spinach, Capers and Lemon was, in comparison to the plate of food I was eating my way through, much less generously proportioned, but was very nicely cooked in a decent and simple fashion, the buttery lemon and caper sauce being spot on. Perfect.

This is quite rare, believe me, but neither of us could even look at the desserts. We were both of us stuffed silly, but extremely happy with the food we’d just eaten.

I like Graze Bar and Chophouse a lot, I like the contemporary British chophouse concept, and it’s been done really well here. The menu is interesting, the food is very good, not stunning but then that’s not the aim, this isn’t a fancy restaurant. It’s exactly as it should be, solid, generously portioned, nicely cooked and beautifully simple where it needs to be.

I’m looking forward to eating there again, and you can’t get much more of a recommendation than that.

Graze Bar and Chophouse

63 Queen Square

Telephone: 0117 9276706

Saturday 5 June 2010

The Restaurant at St Paul’s – London

Cast your mind back to my last post. Remember I talked about how expectation could be such a bitter slap in the face when it comes to restaurants not delivering (oh ok, If we’re being pedantic, I likened it to a kick in the plums).
But, I also mentioned that sometimes, the opposite is true…the heavens shift, the stars align and that restaurant you had no real expectation of shines, it delivers, it surprises.

Last weekend, almost as if designed to illustrate this point nicely The Restaurant in the Crypt of St Pauls Cathedral confounded any expectation of mediocrity I may have harboured, and was bloody fabulous. Full Stop.
From start to finish, everything was right and I enjoyed a very pleasant lunch there indeed.

Located in the crypt, mere metres away from the elaborately marble ensconced but mouldering remains of this island nation’s most revered and celebrated heroes and worthies, this really is an atmospheric place to dine. The room itself is pleasant, surprisingly airy and light, decorated in a pleasing contemporary manner but it’s the little touches here and there that make all the difference. Riedel glassware, old mismatched knives and forks, lovely linen napkins.

Settled in and scanning down the menu, the thing that really impressed me the most was the refreshing Britishness of it all. Every ingredient that this country is producing right now and does bloody well was represented somewhere… Rhubarb, Montgomery Cheddar, Samphire, Asparagus, Jersey Royals, West Sussex Lamb, Cornish Grey Mullet, Scottish Salmon, Regent Park Honey… all backed up by a nice selection of English Wines.

It lifts the heart to see such a well-put together menu, I almost felt like pulling on some cricket whites, unfurling an unfeasibly large Union Jack and striding around the restaurant bellowing 'Rule Britannia’. Which makes it all the more surprising to discover that this excellent, most British of all menus has been put together and cooked by an Australian Head Chef, Candice Webber.

So, the scene was set…. atmospheric room, nice little touches, superb menu showcasing top quality ingredients, but how was the food?

My starter of Portwood Farm Asparagus, Pancetta, poached Duck Egg and Montgomery cheddar was delicious, simply cooked as befitting such quality ingredients, not much to say about it other than very competently done. The egg perfectly poached, the pancetta perfectly crisp, the asparagus perfectly cooked…perfect then.

E’s starter of Bedfordshire Beetroot, marinated Artichokes, Quails egg and truffle dressing was a nicely portioned starter, which again was very competently put together, great produce handled with a delicate touch. Very light, very subtle and delicious.

At this point, and going against the established order of things a bit, we realised that we’d like to try the bread. Some was swiftly delivered with a pat of Jersey butter. The bread was organic; it was baked in London, it was good.

Back on track, my dish of West Sussex Lamb rump, smoked Garlic, Shallot and Spinach arrived, beautifully pink and tender, exactly as it should be. It tasted great.
The recurring theme with the food so far, and present again here in this dish, was how competently, yet simply cooked everything was. Nothing fancy, nothing showy – just lovely ingredients shining.
As I can’t get enough of them when they’re in season, we’d ordered a bowl of Jersey Royals as an accompaniment.

E’s main of Loch Duart Salmon, Sorrel Veloute, Samphire and Preserved Lemon was an interesting, intelligently put together plate of food. The individual components being fairly sour when eaten independently, but when combined together, the tang of the sorrel veloute and the sourness of the preserved lemon worked really well with the Salmon for a really nice clean taste.

So, onto the pudding.

I only had eyes for one thing…. I’d been tipped off by a couple of people that the Regents Park Honey Ice and Gingerbread Sandwich was immensely good. So good in fact, that the waiter recommended it himself, without prompting. Which is always a good sign.
Well, what can I say other than it lived upto the promise. Oh my God, it was bloody gorgeous, honey ice cream (produced from the Cathedrals own hives in Regents Park), sandwiched between moist gingerbread and drizzled with some more of the same aforementioned honey. Wow.

E’s dessert of Custard Tart, Rhubarb and clotted cream although not in the same league as the gingerbread and honey manna from heaven that I was tucking into across the table, was very nicely cooked. I wouldn’t have had any complaints if I’d ordered that instead.

The Restaurant at St Paul’s is a real gem.

The location is second to none, the menu, and the ingredients used are almost a lesson in how British food should be done. The service was great, a minor problem with ‘E’s dessert being politely, swiftly and competently dealt with. In the Gingerbread and Honey Ice cream dessert they have a signature dish people should be falling over themselves to sample…. oh, and did I mention that 2 courses are £20 and 3 courses £24?

If you ever take foreign visitors to London for lunch, and want to take them somewhere really British, where they can get to experience some of the beautiful ingredients this Island has to offer… take them here, and feel your heart swell with pride.

The Restaurant at St Pauls

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Churchyard


Telephone: 020 7248 2469

Tuesday 1 June 2010

The Ginger Dog - Brighton

Expectation, or indeed, the lack of it, can sometimes be a blessing when it comes to eating at restaurants. Stumbling across some anonymous dining gem, purely by chance, where the food exceeds, surprises and delights, somehow accentuates the whole pleasantness of the experience by a considerable factor. You happily settle the bill and stroll into the cool night air, radiating a feeling of contentment only made possible by such unexpected gratification.

Conversely, expectation can sometimes deliver a brutal, steel capped kick to the groin. That restaurant you were so looking forward to visiting, the one you were so sure would be fantastic, that on paper (at least) couldn’t possibly fail…does…and badly. And as you pick yourself up from the floor, clutching your bruised and mangled crotch the only feelings you’re radiating are resentment and sadness.

It depresses me to say that last week; the recently opened Ginger Dog in Brighton’s Kemp Town delivered that particular boot to my nether regions, and it wasn’t pretty.

Let me begin by saying that I’ve eaten at two of the Brighton based Gingerman Groups restaurants in the past. The Ginger Pig in Hove and The Ginger Fox, just outside town in Albourne. Both experiences were good, very good in fact. The food was excellent, the service spot on. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the Ginger Pig delivered a couple of dishes of such quality, I’d rate them as two of the best plates of food I’ve eaten at any gastro pub in the country.

So, as you can see there’s the expectation, nicely positioned to be dashed to pieces.

The Ginger Dog is pleasant enough from a décor sense; the pub has been refurbished in an inoffensive contemporary style with some humorous touches “Dogs” and “Bitches” on the toilet doors, and top hat style lampshades illuminating the bar, last seen at the Pierre Koffman pop up on the roof of Selfridges. But, the eye of the interior designer obviously hadn’t extended beyond the jokey signage on the lavatory doors. Inside, it's business as usual, grim 70’s era pub toilet horror. I’m reliably informed the ‘Bitches’ toilet has been shown the same lack of attention. Perhaps the owners ran out of money, or its work in progress…. Which, strangely enough brings me to the food.

The menu looked promising, British…. seasonal, all the right boxes being ticked.

I started off by ordering a starter of Potted Rabbit with hot mustard piccalilli and bacon brioche. Sounds good right?
What arrived ‘looked’ the part, the bacon brioche was fine, as was the hot mustard piccalilli, but the potted rabbit was freezing cold, and just wasn’t set…. Meaty chunks of rabbit and vegetables swam past grimly, like survivors from a shipwreck as I plunged my spoon into in a sea of freezing cold, barely gelatinous fluid.
This wasn’t just a solitary errant miss, my dining companion “Mr Graphic Foodie” had ordered the same dish, and his rabbit was equally awash within a sea of arctic, jizzmesque liquid slipperyness.

Around the table “Miss Graphic Foodie’s” Sussex coast Smoked Salmon with Blinis, Gin Crème Fraiche and Baby Sorrel tasted fine, but was an incredibly unbalanced dish – a veritable slab of smoked salmon, (enough in fact, to sink the battleship afloat in my potted rabbit). It came partnered with one desultory blini.
Perhaps the kitchen had received a job lot of smoked Salmon. Or were too busy to slice the veritable hillock of fish presented on the plate. It’s unusual to complain about being given too much food I guess, but this was ridiculous. As we finished our starters, an uneaten, unloved donkey choking sized lump of Salmon remained on the plate, a monument to excess.

‘E’s starter of Fried Field Mushrooms on Toast with a Poached Duck Egg was better, but the beautifully spherical but depressingly gloopy egg needed 30 seconds more in the pan, and as with the salmon, the starter was way too big, ‘E’ commenting that it was more like a filling brunch sized dish rather than starter.

So, I think you’ll agree, a bit of a car crash first course. But, pressing on and optimistic perhaps that some decent mains could salvage the meal. I eyed my cricket ball sized Parmesan and Truffle Arancini with a naive sense that everything was going to be alright. It looked good; the accompanying goats cheese fondu and the caponata were tasty enough. Taking my first bite, yes it was ok – bit claggy perhaps, but dipped in the fondu it was pleasant. I couldn’t taste the truffle, but so far so good. Five minutes later, having barely dented its massiveness, I was sick of it, too much tasteless, leaden risotto stuffed into a behemoth of an Arancini. Another unbalanced plate of food.

Around the table – “Mr Graphic Foodies” Ham Hock, Trotter and Potato pie with buttered cabbage, although not much to look at was apparently ‘OK’, but nothing special.

“Miss Graphic Foodies” Roasted Lamb Rack with soft garlic puree and anchovy dauphinoise was generating a matching resigned lack of enthusiasm.

Once again ‘E’ had lucked out with her choice of Grilled Rye bay Plaice with Brown Shrimp, Lemon and Cucumber Butter. Although not exactly ecstatic, the feedback was ‘good’.

Hoping perhaps that at least the desserts might be up to scratch, two of us went for Ice Vanilla Parfait, Poached Rhubarb and Honeycomb and two for the Treacle Tart and double cream (‘E’ asked for ice cream instead, and a rather nice clotted cream ice was substituted).

The treacle tarts were very good, as good as any I’ve eaten anywhere, no complaints there. Although, it was noted that the clotted cream ice cream worked a lot better than the double cream that came with the dish as standard.

The iced vanilla Parfait, poached rhubarb and honeycomb was a real disappointment. The honeycomb tasted burnt and its bitter sourness pervaded the whole dish, it was quiet unpleasant actually.

All in all, our meal at The Ginger Dog was not a very good experience. It’s surprising that such a strong restaurant group, who have got it so right in the past, has got it so wrong here. Admittedly it’s only been open a month or so, but that should be more than enough time to get it right. The unbalanced dishes are something that could be perhaps overlooked, but the un-set potted rabbit and burnt honeycomb were real clangers and deserve to be highlighted.

It’s also interesting to note that some decent service and attention from the staff could have salvaged the meal entirely.
The two harassed looking waitresses were neither particularly welcoming nor much in evidence throughout the meal, not once were we asked how our meal was. Which is a bit of a cardinal sin when it comes to service really. It provides the diner a chance to make any problems known and the kitchen a chance to correct them before the diner leaves unhappy with their meal.

I offer this as an example.

After a soft opening period I recently ate at the first night of a new restaurant (which shall remain nameless). It was bloody abysmal, truly bad. But, and here’s the important bit. At the end of the night, one of the chefs came out of the kitchen and quietly went around the tables asking for honest opinions. He came to our table, and he got exactly what he asked for. The result? He ripped up the bill, asked only that we come again when they’d bedded in, and to give them another chance, which is why I’m not writing about that restaurant and writing about this one instead.

I’m afraid there’s much work needed at The Ginger Dog before it lives up to the standard of its older, more established sister restaurants.
The dogs danglies – right now, it isn’t.

The Ginger Dog
12 College Place

Telephone: 01273 620990