Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Star & Dove - Bristol

For the last few weeks, I’ve been hearing things. Snatches here, snippets there. The Star & Dove gastropub located in Bristol’s Totterdown area has re-opened. People who know about food have eaten there, and the rumours reaching my delicate shell-likes seemingly confirm that it’s pretty good.

Gastropubs, I love em. I like the informality and the rustic food. I like being positively encouraged to drink pints of beer with my meal. Basically the sum of all a gastropubs parts appeals to my inner Essex peasant. So, I’d vowed to myself (in a somewhat admittedly over elaborate ceremony, involving chanting and farm animals) that as soon as I got the chance, I’d be hotfooting it over to Totterdown with all the single-minded determination of a cruise missile.

Monday was that day. Rolling out of bed with nothing planned, no demands expected, and not a thought in my mungus brain other than the half formed idea that it might be nice to stuff my gullet with tasty things, I suddenly remembered The Star & Dove.

Easily persuading ‘E’ to accompany me, whom as luck might have it, was enjoying a scheduled day off. We hurriedly got ready and it wasn’t long before we were both striding purposefully through the centre of Bristol, Southward bound.

Geographically, Totterdown is South of the river which runs through the centre of the city and therefore to my mind, somehow equates to ‘Sarf of the river’ in London. This also means that, to me, it’s a somewhat mystifying and unexplored part of Bristol, and my mental map has it marked with ‘There be dragons here’.
Luckily the Star & Dove isn’t too far into this heathen wilderness, and it wasn’t long before we were rocking up outside.

Monday lunchtime is probably not the best time to visit a place that has only been open for a few weeks, but needs must, and if a place is open and selling food then you’ve got to argue that anytime is valid for a review.

I hadn’t visited the pub in its previous incarnation; supposedly a pretty decent gastropub of the same name that had closed, and had remained so for a good few months. The new owners are in fact three of the chefs who had worked there previously, returning after a year apart, after working at The Harbourside, The New Inn Backwell and The Robin Hood’s Retreat on Gloucester Road respectively. Unusually, they appear to be sharing all roles, including running the bar and splitting their time between front and back of house. To encounter a ‘barman’, who is also one of the chefs, and also one of the owners isn’t something you come across often.

My first impressions upon entering the pub were of space and light. The place is frigging huge. There are three large rooms around a centrally located bar, with large windows flooding the place with daylight.

Now that I’m older, wiser, more sophisticated and almost impossibly, more beautiful, my automatic first choice is no longer a lager. So, it’s always good to see some more unusual beers on draught, RCH Double Header (oooer), Ruddles County and Abbotts Ale all featured, along with, happily one of my frequent choices, Otter. For the undecided, or those with a ridiculously short attention span, a nice touch is the option to buy 3 third of a pint measure, taster glasses. An offer that ‘E’ took up.

We picked up a menu. Ten minutes later, after much heated debate, vicious arguing and possibly a few heartfelt slaps and blows, we presented a smiling united front at the bar and ordered our food, a selection of starters and smaller plates first, and a larger main dish each.

First we started on some homemade bread with butter and rapeseed oil for dipping. The bread, apparently made each day on the premises was cracking stuff, liberally slathered with butter; we both happily stuffed our faces. I feel perhaps that the rapeseed oil as a dip for the bread isn’t the best choice. Yes, it might be locally produced, but it just isn’t that pleasant when compared to a decent Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Although saying that, we laid our hands on some smoked rapeseed oil recently at a farmers market, and that would be a completely different proposition. It’s gorgeous stuff.

With the nagging feeling that I might have over-ordered somewhat, I started on a large plate of home cured corn beef. The accompanying piccalilli was obviously homemade, and all the better for it. Some more of the excellent bread, toasted this time, and the corned beef, although not outstanding, was good. At £4.50 it was altogether a nice, incredibly cheaply priced plate of food.

Across the table, ‘E’ was rapidly working her way through a glass of freshwater crayfish, topped with some caper rapeseed mayonnaise. I tried some, and it was absolutely delicious. Once again, ridiculously underpriced at £2.50. The only minor niggle we had with this dish, was that upon nearing the bottom, there seemed to be a bit too much liquid, suggesting that the crayfish could have done with a more thorough draining off before piled into the glass.

‘E’ had ordered Porter Rarebit. To be honest, we weren’t sure about this dish at all. Yes, it certainly tasted of Porter, but strangely didn’t taste at all of cheese. It was more of a golden paste on toast, rather than a traditional grilled and bubbling rarebit. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a bit lacking in flavour really. I’d prefer to see this ditched from the menu, and a well put together standard rarebit, made using decent local ingredients, put up in its place.

So, a bit of a mixed bag to start with. Mostly good, albeit with some minor easily remedied niggles and one pretty duff dish.

But then, my main arrived and somewhat astonishingly saved the day. It looked bloody awesome; in fact it was probably one of the nicest looking plates of food I’ve seen outside a Michelin starred restaurant. I’m not sure the photo does it justice, but I sat and admired it from every angle for a good couple of minutes. Salt Marsh Lamb, Blood pudding, egg and Lamb Bacon. It was basically a whole load of beautifully cooked meat temptingly draped around an egg. I was like a pig in shit and demolished it in record time, all the while marvelling at the attention to detail, the interesting cuts and the bits and pieces artfully placed around the plate.
Truly outstanding and for £10 just a bit of a steal.

Meanwhile, although perhaps not garnering the ecstatic torrent of praise my food had provoked, across the table ‘E’ was soundly satisfied with her dish of cider braised mushrooms, wild garlic and baked potatoes. It looked great and I couldn’t say no to a quick taste. It was very good, full of herbs predominately dill - surprisingly, a great match with mushrooms and a combination I haven’t tried before. Altogether a really decent plate of food and at £7, a lot of work for again, a very low price.

Finishing up with a dessert of mead set cream with lavender shortbread that was pleasant, but had on paper, sounded a lot more interesting than it actually tasted.

I sat and mulled over the meal we’d just eaten.

I came to the conclusion, that it’s a bloody interesting menu, and that some of the food is absolutely spanking which proves that the Star & Dove could be amazing. My salt marsh lamb dish was off the chart in a scale of excellence, and it was absolute food porn to look at too. Although the side was let down a bit by the not so great dish (Porter Rarebit, I’m looking at you), and a minor niggle with the crayfish prep. It’s always just a bit frustrating when a meal isn’t consistent.

Also, if I was being a complete pedant, and had my ‘cheesemonger’ head on, the generic Stilton and Mature Cheddar on the menu really need to be replaced by some of the excellent British handmade artisan cheeses available. It’s that much more exciting to see ‘Stichelton, Colston Bassett or Keens on the menu, rather than Stilton or Cheddar which suggests the use of cheaper, catering stuff and could be the reason why the rarebit was so bland.

Saying all that, we both left more than happy with the lunch we’d just eaten. The Star & Dove is serving nice booze and obviously doing interesting things in the kitchen, (a pickled chicken dish on the menu certainly caught my eye, as did the rather interesting looking ploughmans that passed by our table, apparently served with a shot of celery juice).

The whole menu is blatantly underpriced and the Sunday lunch menu we saw looked superb. The owners went out of their way with regards to customer service, the chef even supplying ‘E’ with a free, ad-hoc, lemon curd and oat dessert when it transpired there was gelatine in the mead cream that we’d ordered.

To be fair, it hasn’t been open long, and they’re obviously just settling in. Hopefully with just a bit more attention to detail and some more consistency, The Star & Dove could be a real Bristol destination.
I’ll definitely be heading South of the river for another visit.

The Star & Dove

St Lukes Road

Telephone: 0117 933 2892

Monday 9 May 2011

Back to British

Notoriously slow on the uptake, and quite often utterly oblivious to what’s going on around me, even I haven’t failed to notice the recent trend for historical British food that seems to be influencing high end restaurant menus and cookbook publishers output alike. Yes, it seems that this year the combination of old and British is a winning one.

But not just anything ancient and of this green and pleasant land will do. That’s way too easy, British nursery food has been done to death in the past few years and is now almost a default choice on pub menus across the land. No. It seems it also has to be obscure.

Before featuring on the menu at Heston Blumenthal’s new London restaurant ‘Dinner’ how many of you had heard of the 17th century salad dish, salmagundi? I know I hadn’t. Sounding perhaps like a particularly loathsome venereal disease, it’s been plucked from historical culinary obscurity, rediscovered and reinvented for the 21st century. (Just so you know, it’s a salad comprised of cooked meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and flowers and dressed with oil, vinegar and spices).

The Gilbert Scott, Marcus Wareing’s brand spanking new St Pancras restaurant (It opened just last week, and I’m gagging to eat there) similarly has a menu littered with forgotten British dishes that probably haven’t been served to a paying customer for at least a hundred years. Dorset Jugged Steak or Tweed Kettle anyone?

So you’re excited about all this unusual yet strangely familiar British food. But can’t wait 3 months for a table at Heston’s ‘Dinner’ and St Pancras isn’t handily located in your particular ‘hood’? You want to get in on the act, and you fancy cooking up some 19th or 18th century British food of your own. Superb. But where to begin?

Luckily, most of the cookery book publishers anticipated this trend and are re-releasing classic and quite often, downright obscure culinary texts as we speak.

Particularly interesting are the Penguin ‘Great Food’ paperbacks. This beautiful series of re-printed classic books cover a range of authors from Victorian cook Eliza Acton to 18th century housewife and the original domestic goddess - Hannah Glasse. Not all the books in the series deal with British food, but the majority have a link.

What I find fascinating, flicking through the pages is quite often, how little anything has actually changed. Many of the recipes and dishes are not a hell of a lot different from the versions you might find in a much more modern book. However, just to keep you on your toes, the very next recipe will be a ‘certain cure for the bite of a mad dog’ or a ‘receipt against the plague’ (If you’re interested. It’s a rather heady mix of rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender cooked in white wine vinegar for 4 days, then mixed with camphor – wash your loins with that concoction, and you’re free to strut around town with no chance of contracting the plague at all).

My absolute favourite from the series is ‘Recipes from the White Hart Inn’ by William Verrall. An 18th century landlord from Sussex, who had trained as a chef in France and was trying to introduce the ‘modern and best french cookery’ to his customers. The preface where he describes being hired to cook a dinner in a Gentleman’s house, and the resulting woeful lack of equipment and culinary knowledge on the part of the incumbent cook and indeed the diners had me in hysterics. Surprisingly, most of the recipes seem very up to date (which is indicative perhaps of how little French cuisine has changed). Williams’s thoughts on the use of fresh vegetables, herbs, ‘mise en place’ and good kitchen management are just as valid today as they were then. All imparted in impossibly elaborate, beautiful Georgian prose with a mile wide streak of gruff pub landlord running through it. Hilarious. I can’t recommend it enough, if only for the sheer entertainment value.

Quadrille are also in on the act with a selection of re-released, long lost, volumes in their ‘Classic voices in food’ range. Eliza Acton features again, in a rather hefty and beautifully printed ‘Modern cookery for private families’. It’s incredibly comprehensive with 34 chapters covering pretty much, every conceivable facet of cooking. From soups to preserves, including unusually for the period, a whole chapter on ‘foreign and Jewish cookery’. Once again, it’s a fascinating and rather useful book, especially if you’re looking for some ‘on trend’ historical British grub inspiration

I absolutely love this unexpected direction British food has taken. Looking into it’s distant past and rediscovering itself. Instead of feeling like the red-headed culinary step child and constantly looking abroad to other cultures for ideas and influence, it seems that we’ve finally realised that once upon a time, way back when, we had some pretty bloody good food of our own, right here. I’m so proud and getting just a bit teary; after I’ve finished belting out a verse of Jerusalem, I might start hunting around for a tricorn hat on Ebay.

Thursday 5 May 2011

St Ali - London

I love good coffee. But It hasn’t always been so. I’ve found that as I’ve got older, more into food, I’ve become something of a coffee snob. Nowadays I sneer at the acrid essence of crumbled mud in glass jars that passes for coffee from the supermarket chains, but years ago, a more innocent, a more naïve me deemed it a perfectly acceptable brew. Later I felt the same way about the coffee from the doggy-style-humping-evil-world straddling-corporate chain, Starbucks, as I blindly ambled to work sipping my tasteless yet ridiculously expensive fix from a two gallon cup.

But I’ve matured. I’ve grown. I’d sooner neck a litre of my own piss than drink an overpriced Shattachino (TM) from the aforementioned Seattle based company, at least my ‘home brewed’ is cheap, steaming, and tastes of something.

Nowadays, I want to buy my coffee from a little independent place. I want it made with love and care. I want it to taste smooth and amazing. I want a flat white. And I want leaf patterns drawn in the froth to show just how damn skilful and artistic the person who made my coffee is. Oh, and they simply must have lots of tattoos.
Not much to ask is it?

Luckily, London is sprouting a rash of decent independent coffee shops like a pubescent teen developing a particularly fine crop of acne. Pop your head into any of these places, and it’s a pretty safe bet that it will be an Antipodean behind the coffee machine. In a somewhat surprising development, whilst we were all gormlessly sipping on awful brown coloured pish, across the other side of the globe, the Aussies and the Kiwis were developing a café and coffee culture that is second to none. What they don’t know about decent coffee isn’t worth knowing. And God bless them, they want to share it with us.

All of which brings me to the latest, coolest place to get your premium caffeine fix, all the way from Melbourne Australia, supposedly the pre-eminent café in a city that is absolutely heaving with serious competition. Yes….Clerkenwell in London now has a ‘St Ali’.

But why St Ali? I hear you ask. Well, apparently it’s like this. Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili (St Ali) was the patron saint of coffee, who in the 15th century introduced coffee beans to Muslim mystics. Who knew eh?

So, a couple of weeks ago, I made the pilgrimage back to my old and much loved stomping ground of Clerkenwell (Some of you will know that I was cruelly mistreated and banished from this wondrous area of London, last April by my one-time evil ex-employer in a savage and entirely unwarranted act of redundancy). In fact, I more or less worked right across the road from the new St Ali site.

Happily my pained and tortured countenance was rapidly replaced by a look of serenity and total calm, as I greeted my pal Nicola who was joining me for lunch, and took in the vast and light flooded space.

Seriously, the place is bloody huge. (You could fit my entire flat into the toilets). At one end of the main room, beyond the central bar is an absolutely massive free standing roasting machine. Next to this, a ‘living wall’ of plants, which added considerably to my feeling of zen…

…A feeling which, doesn’t last long for two reasons. Firstly my ordered flat white is absolutely excellent. Smooth but packing quite a wallop, it’s a bloody nice cup of coffee. The problem is the ‘coffee art’ gracing the foam.
I’ve had a few goes at doing this on a professional machine myself, and basically, I can’t do it. It’s much harder than it looks and all my attempts have been frigging diabolical. The example that I now held in my hands didn’t have just one fancy palm frond. It had a three. To my eyes, that’s just taking the piss and reinforces what an utter dribbling incompetent of a coffee maker I am, with all the subtlety of a boot heel grinding my face into a gravel path.
I throw a look of utter contempt at the smiling unknowing barista.

Strangely, the other ‘calm killer’ was the beautiful old communal antique bench we were sitting at. Absolutely cracking to look at, battered, full of character, one end covered with vases festooned with flowers. It looked like it belonged in a glossy magazine photo shoot. But…it’s set at just the right height that when seated on the proffered stools, it’s impossible to put your legs under. So we both ended up sitting ‘side-saddle’ whilst eating, which isn’t a comfortable dining position at all. Solution, raise the bench up – or cut the legs off the stools, right now it’s definitely a case of style over comfort.

On the plus side, apart from the excellent coffee, the food menu is very interesting. With an obvious emphasis on brunch/lunch, it’s full of fresh, Bill Granger’esque dishes and combinations, with unusual foreign sounding ingredients –savoury French toast with bacon, maple labna and apple balsamic, grilled sardines with skordalia (What the hell is skordalia?) dukkah, kasundi, zhoug all feature (Aren’t they characters from Star Trek?). Trust me. It’s an intriguing menu.

Mystery ingredients aside, those in the know had flagged up one dish as being absolutely cracking. The weirdly named ‘My Mexican Cousin’ (I have no idea why its called that – as far as I can tell, based on the ingredients, it has sod all to do with Mexico).
Consisting of corn fritters, baby spinach, halloumi, kasundi (A spicy Indian tomato chutney) and two poached eggs. It’s lovely. Just simple, fresh food and therefore pretty much the perfect brunch dish.

In fact, St Ali is the perfect brunch place. I just wish it was down the road from where I live. It’s the sort of place you want to grab a late weekend breakfast, chill out and read the papers. Sadly it’s in the wrong frigging city.
F*ck my luck.
Build it in Bristol next time Ok guys?

St Ali
27 Clerkenwell Road

Telephone: 020 7253 5754

*Added Note*
I've just been informed by the owner of St Ali, through the wonder of Twitter, that 'My Mexican Cousin' is so called, because it was literally his Mexican cousin who came up with it. So, now we know.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Spuntino - London

Regular readers of my blog, you know, the achingly hip, hauntingly beautiful yet supremely intelligent types…. (Yes you), may have noticed a lack of restaurant reviews of late.

Believe it or not, I’ve been dining out often, but the problem is this. The places I’ve been eating at *whispers* haven’t been very good. But to be fair, they haven’t been very bad either. They’ve been alright, sort of OK…adequate.
Y’see I find mediocre boring to eat, extremely boring to write about, and absolutely yawnsome to read. I’m only interested in writing about the two complete opposite ends of the scale. Really bad is really good…. at least, good in the writing sense. It’s an absolute joy to write about somewhere that is cringingly awful, truly abysmal. Because, lets face it, if it’s that bad they deserve everything they get, upto and including my size 11's planted firmly in their rectums, in the literary sense of course.

And really good is just that, the best of all. Cracking to eat and an absolute pleasure to spew forth my gushing appreciation, alles uber da platz.

So. That’s the situation. I’ve been biding my time, pissing my hard earned cash down a urinal of culinary mediocrity, gradually…falling…. asleep…until….

….Last week I finally got a chance to pop my head into the recently opened Spuntino in London
The latest Soho outpost in the rather excellent Polpo/Polpetto stable, Spuntino is, for anyone who’s visited its sister restaurants, both familiar and at the same time, a bit of a diversion. Here is the same battered and frayed Victorian wreck meets New York dive bar chic, the same brown paper menus and even the same almost effortless cool vibe. But out is the Venetian bacaro style menu, instead replaced by a hard to define, New York bar snack menu punctuated with flashes of eccentricity and off the wall brilliance. Also out is the restaurant table, instead a bar fills most of the room with stools surrounding it.

It’s extremely informal. There’s no booking, (there isn’t even a telephone number to call), just show up, grab a stool, eat and drink off the bar with the food arriving in no particular order, as it’s ready.

Sipping a Meantime Pale Ale and studying the menu whilst nibbling on the complimentary popcorn served in a chipped enamel mug, I mentally wrestled with what to order. It’s such an unusual menu, filled with such interesting things it’s hard to know what to try first.

Egg and Soldiers arrived, a shelled, runny boiled egg, coated in a spicy crust with toast for dipping. Something different, but perhaps a bit too conventional when stacked up against the sheer awesomeness of the next dish to appear.

Truffled egg toast. A thick square of toasted white bread, with a square hollow cut into it, which is then filled with beaten eggs and truffle oil, and then finally surrounded by melted fontina cheese was very good indeed. Rich, oozing and just a bit decadent. I liked it a lot.

A Ground Beef and Bone Marrow Slider appeared next. (A Slider, in case you’re not aware is a mini burger). A skewered mini bun of melted cheese smothered meatiness. It was very nice indeed, but I’ve been thinking about the price. It was £4.50, which in itself isn’t terribly expensive…but, just a short walk from here you can get arguably the best burger in London, the Hawksmoor Burger with triple cooked chips for £15. The dilemma in my mind is, do three £4.50 sliders add up to the wonder that is a Hawksmoor burger and chips? I’m inclined to think no. Although in the context of the whole small snack menu, they work – I just think they might be a tad overpriced.

Eggplant chips with fennel yoghurt were beautifully crisp, with a nice aniseed kick from the dip. I could have sat whiling away the hours munching on these whilst drinking beer all day.

I was intrigued by the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, which turned out to be a couple of slices of peanut butter ice cream, sprinkled with crispy peanut ‘bits’ and filled with Jam. It was absolutely cracking, but definitely one for sharing as I found it a bit too sweet to finish on my own. (Although I managed…of course).

Spuntino is a very hard place to dislike. It’s extremely accessible and informal, the menu design, the bar stool eating and the lack of reservations invite both quick grazing and longer drawn out meals. In fact, I suspect propping up the bar here will be a very pleasant way to spend a few hours.

But what I like most is… it’s different.

Where identi-kit restaurants and bars, each with menus practically identical to each other blight our land from top to bottom, Spuntino is breaking new ground. They really are doing their own thing with a menu packed full of interesting new ideas and twists. It’s innovative, eccentric and therefore utterly cool. I applaud and cheer them for this heartily. I will be back, soon.

61 Rupert Street

*Edited to add*
I've just been reliably informed that there is a full size burger available at Spuntino, priced at £8. But just like the famous burger at Joe Allen, it's not actually on the menu.