Monday 30 December 2013

The Clove Club - London

You may have noticed I recently spent some time in Edinburgh, basically eating every bloody thing I could lay my hands on. This unrepentant, gluttonous bout of restaurant debauchery, all in the dubious honour of my 40th birthday, almost broke me. Honestly, I didn’t think it was possible for me to experience, but this ridiculously indulgent, self-inflicted, surfeit of fine food and wine left me dazed, bloated, craving any form of salad and with the nagging feeling that if I even glimpsed another tasting menu I’d throw myself to the floor and start having a tantrum.

At this, my lowest point, I flew back to London where a now, distinctly unwanted, dinner reservation at The Clove Club awaited. Seriously, I’d just had enough; I didn’t fancy it at all, despite wanting to eat there for some time. At the appointed hour of doom I dutifully dragged my sorry ass over to Shoreditch, and all credit to the restaurant, I’m happy to say this jaded, overindulged, miserable old f*cker had a really cracking meal.

The restaurant itself is located in the old Shoreditch town hall, which makes for a rather grand entrance. I headed straight into the packed, dimly lit bar and immediately felt better. These things are hard to define sometimes, but for me the room had a good vibe. Led to my table in the dining room, out back, and I perked up even more. There’s something of a St John’ish feel to the rather austere looking room, with an open kitchen at one end, bare wooden tables, battered white walls and moody lighting. I loved it. Seriously, if I had my own restaurant I’d like to imagine it would look just like this. It was packed out, and as with the bar next door there was a nice buzz about it, which was a welcome antidote to some of the hushed fine dining I’d just recently experienced in Edinburgh.

There is only one choice in the restaurant, a set menu at £47. Fair enough.
I’d eaten the buttermilk fried chicken & pine salt before at their sister restaurant, Upstairs at The Ten Bells, so knew what to expect and also knew not to tuck into the bed of pine branches (so tempting). What to say, it’s absolutely delicious and easy to see why it’s become such a signature dish. 
Radishes, black sesame and gochuchang, a fermented Korean condiment made from red chilli, glutinous rice and soybeans, followed. An interesting take on the classic radishes with salt and butter, the fiery, buttery texture of the gochuchang and the nuttiness of the sesame seeds worked really well. 
Wood pigeon sausage & greengage ketchup was bloody stunning. My only complaint would be the microscopic dimensions of the measly frigging little taster piece I was presented with. I’m looking at the menu right now and it definitely says ‘sausages’ not ‘sawn off sausage nub’. Oh well, still, it was very nice and definitely left me wanting more…bastards.
Spartanly presented, Scottish blood pudding, celeriac and red william pear was probably my least favourite of the dishes I ate. The flavour combination of the black pudding, pear and celeriac was lovely but I think I’ve been a little spoilt by Trealy Farm’s rather excellent boudin noir. Every other black pudding I’ve tried just doesn’t come close in flavour or texture, including this.
The next dish arrived, BBQ squid, tarragon and the intriguingly named, green meat radishes (I asked and disappointingly it’s just that the flesh is green…oh).  The squid was perfectly cooked, a feat which seems to elude a fair few restaurants. The unusual tarragon and radish combination worked well. Nothing to blow my socks off, just a good solid plate of food.
Aged featherblade of beef, Jerusalem artichoke and horseradish, however was absolutely bloody awesome. The meat was so ridiculously sticky, tender and rich. This is my idea of a perfect plate of wintery grub, I sat there transfixed, a big grin on my face as I shovelled forkful after forkful it into my mouth, enjoying every last bit and feeling genuinely disappointed when there was nothing left but a plate scraped bare.
Luckily for me the next course was also something of a standout. A bowl of Amalfi lemonade & black pepper ice cream was just incredible. Ridiculously soft, warm and mousse like on top with a contrasting cooler temperature deeper down and an almost effervescent, sherbet tingle on the tongue. Unbelievable. I bloody loved this. 
Warm quince, vanilla cream and gingerbread was nice enough. Really, what’s not to like about that combination of flavours? Although I found the gingerbread to be a little tough perhaps; I couldn’t cut through it with my spoon without sending it skidding across the plate. So rather than end up with it in my lap and utilising the years I spent in that posh finishing school, I picked it up and got stuck in.
Coffee came with an addition. A bar of The Clove Club’s own chocolate flavoured with almond. I thought this was a really nice and unusal touch.

But not quite as good as the final flourish. A lurid green pill, sitting atop a note collectively praising Fernet Branca (the Italian medicinal tasting, herbal drink), Fergus Henderson and his St John restaurant. There followed a recipe for a Dr Henderson cocktail, (Named after Fergus’s Father, a combination of crème de menthe and Fernet, it’s something of an acquired taste). 

Popping the pill into my mouth, it broke and I could taste the unmistakable flavour of the aforementioned cocktail flooding across my tongue, lovely.
That I enjoyed my meal at The Clove Club so much, despite arriving with an unusually negative mindset of not really wanting to eat at another restaurant, just goes to show how good it actually is.

The restaurant itself is lovely both in atmosphere and design. The service was spot on and the food itself was incredibly inventive, fun and interesting as well as beautifully cooked. Yeah, a couple of the dishes were a bit more workmanlike than jaw droppingly impressive but the aged featherblade of beef and the Amalfi lemondade and black pepper ice cream were so astoundingly impressive, they’re kind of a hard act to follow.

The Clove Club, yeah, loved it.

The Clove Club
Shoreditch Town Hall
380 Old Street

Monday 16 December 2013

Castle Terrace - Edinburgh

If right now you could gaze upon my complexion, you’d probably note how untroubled by the ravages of time it is, how peach like and bursting full of moisture I obviously am and just how damn youthful I look. If I then told you that I turn 40 at the end of this week, and I recently spent three days in Edinburgh, celebrating my fourth decade on the planet by eating pretty much everywhere, your jaw would no doubt hit the floor. You’d definitely have had me pegged at 18.Yeah. But no, people, seriously I’m at least halfway dead. Party!

But that’s enough about me, lets talk about you. What do you think about me? (leave comments). No seriously, moving on. By far the best meal I ate during my stay in Edinburgh was also the most reasonably priced. This aspect impressed me no end. The restaurant was The Castle Terrace and I am declaring myself completely smitten.

Located, strangely enough, on the end of a Terrace in the shadow of Edinburgh castle, the Michelin starred restaurant is part of Tom Kitchin’s Scottish empire, with Dominic Jack, the head chef.

I’d booked for lunch, before flying back to London later that afternoon and only really had my eye on the set lunch menu, the a la carte being a bit more robustly priced.

The dining room itself had a nice feel to it with a warm, relaxed vibe.
A selection of rather interesting looking canapés came first. Salt cod barbajuan (let me just say now, I had no frigging idea what a barbajuan was, it turns out it’s Monaco’s national dish and is a deep fried savoury pastry) this example was matt black and spiky, almost fetishist in appearance and incredible to look at. It was also absolutely delicious. Next a perfectly miniature burger flavoured with caper and cumin which was also delicious. Finally a ‘Caesar Salad’ in the form of a spherical green jelly, which I had been advised to eat in one bite. It impressed me no end that the flavour that flooded my mouth as I bit into it was indeed the Parmesan, crouton, lettuce, anchovy and creamy dressing taste of the classic salad. I’ve got to say, these were bloody awesome canapés, some of the best and most inventive I’ve eaten anywhere. I was really sitting up and taking notice now.
Chewing on some excellent bread and butter, brought to the table in a tartan bag arrangement, designed to keep it warm (it did) I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next.
An appetiser billed as ‘baked potato with cheese’ came next. Consisting of a potato veloute with a dusting of savoury spices on the top. I dipped in with my spoon and broke into a deep fried molten ball of cheese hidden at the bottom. Lovely.

I rarely ever order squid in a restaurant. I find it’s often pretty bland and ridiculously easy to cook badly, but I went for it thinking this would be a real test of how good the cooking was. 

Look at the photo, how beautiful is that for a plate of food? What I initially thought was a risotto underneath the candy-striped cylinder of squid stuffed with a fish mousse was in fact tiny pieces of squid. The whole dish was so elegant and so incredibly impressive in its construction I just found myself staring at it. The spell broken with my fork plunging into the cannelloni and dipping it into the accompanying garlic and parley sauces, I’ve got to say not only was it a looker, but it tasted amazing. Yep and as you’d expect the squid was perfectly cooked too. 
A pithivier of ox tongue with autumnal vegetables followed. As with the previous dish, I spent a bit of quality ‘me’ time just admiring the incredible precision of the pastry work and the dish in general. It was so perfect it almost felt a shame to eat the bloody thing. Suppressing any feelings of guilt, I waded in, carefully constructing a forkful consisting of a bit of everything, as is my way. Yeah, it was amazing. The deeply savoury ox tongue filling, combined with the mash and the vegetables was basically perfect autumn comfort food tarted up and refined beyond belief. I loved it.
Locally foraged sea buckthorn featured on a cheesecake served with chocolate sorbet. As with everything else, the presentation was incredible but this was probably the least impressive course I ate. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the combination of chocolate and sea buckthorn, I thought the sharpness of the berries was slightly overwhelmed by the richness of the chocolate flavours. That’s me being finicky. I don’t mind saying it was still good and I ate the lot.
With coffee accompanying petits fours and a tip, my bill came to £39, which for that standard of cooking felt almost ridiculous. I’d had a bit of an excess of booze the night before, so this didn’t include any alcohol, I stuck with water.

I bloody loved The Castle Terrace. As I said previously I thought it was by far the best meal I ate in Edinburgh. The service was pitch perfect, not too friendly, not too stuffy and formal (Restaurant Martin Wishart take note) the food was undoubtedly amazing. So elegant and beautifully cooked but with really inventive and interesting touches. I honestly couldn’t have been more impressed. It’s easily one of the best lunches I’ve eaten this year; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s up there as one of the best lunches I’ve eaten full stop. That the set lunch menu is such an incredible bargain just makes it that much more impressive.

If you’re in Edinburgh, you must eat here. No question. 

The Castle Terrace
33/35 Castle Terrace

Telephone: 0131 229 1222

Thursday 12 December 2013

Restaurant Martin Wishart - Edinburgh

Remember in my last post when I said that I carefully researched which restaurants I ate at and therefore rarely eat a crap meal? Well, I'm disheartened to report that Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh recently tested the limits of this somewhat. To be fair, it was about as far from crap as it’s possible to get, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly half as much as I thought I would, especially when choking on the eye watering bill at the end of the meal. 

Here’s how it went down….

The restaurant is located on the harbourside in Leith, Edinburgh’s old port area, with the entrance itself picked out by hot pink glowing lights. I initially thought it might be a brothel. Carefully concealing my extreme disappointment when I realised it was in fact the restaurant I’d booked a table at, I stepped through the front door to be greeted by the French maitre d’.

Now, as you can well imagine, being from the Essex hinterland, I’m a frigging classy dude and I’ve eaten in any number of ‘posh restaurants’ and invariably felt entirely at home. To the manor born (OK, ‘manor’ in the Arthur Daley sense, but still). Martin Wishart was different. I didn’t feel comfortable here. Glancing around the softly lit dining room, I noticed all the other diners, without fail, were extremely dressed up. Evening dresses, suits and ties. Uncomfortably aware of my own, less salubrious attire (tracksuit bottoms tucked into sport socks, deep V t-shirt and novelty tartan cap with attached ginger wig), I couldn’t help but feel underdressed. I may have been slightly more tastefully attired, but you get the point.

This was a temple to fine dining populated by an obviously wealthy clientele and for probably the first time ever eating in a restaurant, I felt slightly on edge.
Maybe things would improve when I got stuck into the food, which in this case was to be the tasting menu at £75
An amuse of beetroot macarons, one with horseradish, and another with carrot and cornichon were an interesting idea, but perhaps a little too subtly flavoured for me.
Another amuse followed, to be eaten, I was informed in an almost impenetrable French accent, in a specific order left to right; courgette, basil, curry oil and espelette pepper which was very nice. Pomme dauphine, crème fraiche and smoked salmon, which was curiously presented sitting on a piece of scrunched up tin foil, still, lovely. Finally a warm chicken parfait, Parmesan veloute and port reduction, also cracking.
Partridge ravioli, cabbage with sage, truffle sauce followed and was absolutely banging. A rich meaty ravioli filling in a creamy and beautifully flavoured truffle sauce. Seriously, what’s not to like?
Next, a glass containing a ceviche of Gigha halibut with mango & passion fruit was obviously much subtler. Again, it was bloody delicious, seriously good. Fresh tasting and light, I could have finished off a pint of this rather than the demure martini glassful I’d had to make do with.
Loch Fyne crab ‘Marie Rose’ consisting of a tartare of rose veal, tomato and crab mayonnaise arrived at the table beautifully presented in an attractive glassware dish with pebbles and shells suspended in a bowl underneath.  As with the previous dishes, the food itself was beautifully flavoured. The rose veal tartare, subtle and cool against the silky richness of the crab mayonnaise.
Roasted veal sweetbreads were served sitting on a chestnut puree, surrounded by a moat of  potato veloute. A bit beige perhaps, but it had knock out flavours. I have a bit of a thing for both sweetbreads and potatoes, in any form, so it was hard to fault really.
The following dish was the main event, roast loin of Ayrshire hare, pastille of braised leg, red cabbage, port wine, braised turnips and dauphine potato. Technically it was an impressive dish. The tiny pastille of braised leg were elegantly cylindrical, crisp and stuffed full of rich meat. The potato dauphine, deep fried potato mixed with choux pastry were perfectly cooked as was the loin of hare, which was delicious.

As I ate, I ear wigged on my next-door neighbours’ conversation. A pair of solicitors discussing cases of wine they had in their respective cellars and how one of them had once spanked over a grand on lunch, which probably goes some way in exemplifying the majority of my fellow diners. I was tempted to join in with an excessive anecdote of my own concerning the consumption of multiple doner kebabs during a drunken night out in Essex.
Dessert was phenomenal. I’m struggling to describe what exactly it was, the menu description is just ‘salted caramel’ but it was somewhere between a cheesecake and a thick toffee like caramel mousse, partnered with poached Guyot pear, peanuts and a pear sorbet, it really was something special.

Coffee and rather lovely petits fours, consisting of whisky truffles, a majari chocolate macaron, spiced orange and mandarin, coffee ganache and salted caramel, rounded things off.
That, with two glasses of wine and service came to £109. One of the most expensive meals I’ve ever had (no thousand pound lunches here, sadly) and as I said at the beginning of the post, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as I thought I would. The food was superb and hard to fault really. Expensive ingredients, beautifully cooked and prepared, lovely. 

The problem I had with Restaurant Martin Wishart was the incredibly stuffy, fine dining vibe, the entire French front of house team, albeit consummately pleasant and professional, were always slightly stand offish and gave out a slightly aloof air. It’s hard to put my finger on what was up, but I’ve eaten in enough ‘posh’ restaurants to know that here, I just didn’t feel comfortable and therefore didn’t really enjoy the experience. For examples of restaurants that get it right, both The Ledbury and The Square manage to strike the perfect balance between a fine dining experience and warm, professional front of house. 

This was the most expensive meal I ate on my stay in Edinburgh and I’m sad to say, the one I probably enjoyed the least, despite the food being excellent.

Restaurant Martin Wishart

54 Shore,

Telephone: 0131 553 3557

Sunday 8 December 2013

Timberyard - Edinburgh

Some may have noticed I rarely write bad reviews of restaurants. Not because I lack the killer instinct to critique or have a desperate urge to please with fawning adulation, no. My generally upbeat reviews are down to a matter of moolah or to be honest, the lack of it.

You see, almost every restaurant I visit, I research carefully first. It’s almost certainly somewhere I genuinely want to experience, in some cases somewhere I’ve wanted to eat at for years. The dull, the mediocre the dire and the downright shit will have been meticulously identified and studiously avoided. I just don’t have the cash to piss up the wall on rubbish restaurants. If I’m going to eat anywhere, I try my hardest to ensure it’s good. It doesn’t always work out that way to be fair, but my success rate is pretty impressive. It’s extremely rare that I eat a crap meal. Life is far too short to eat badly.

So far, so good. But on a recent visit to Edinburgh, I broke all my own rules and ate lunch at a restaurant I pretty much knew sod all about. I’d had a couple of recommendations, sure, but when I turned up at the door trying to cadge a table for one, I didn’t even know what type of food they were serving. 

Luckily, as it turned out, I hit the frigging jackpot and had one of the best lunches of the trip. 
Located in an old converted timber yard (hence the name, cunning) the restaurant itself is large, light and incredibly stylish in a Scandinavian meets contemporary Scottish kind of way. I took a seat by the wood burner whilst resting the menu on a heavy reclaimed wood table and admired a tartan throw artfully draped over the back of some kind of metal framed design classic chair. It felt like I’d stepped into the pages of a trendy lifestyle mag. Of course, as you’d imagine I was entirely at home in such a setting but still, tres stylised.
The stylishness continued when my bottle of water was placed on a sawn off tree trunk perched next to the table. Totes organic trendy.

The menu has an interesting ‘bite’ section, basically amuse to get you started. I ordered a couple. 
Ham hock jelly, quails egg, toast, cress, mushroom and apple featured on the set lunch menu and was delicious with a lovely delicate balance of flavours. A set meat jelly isn’t something I’d considered before as a main component of a dish but it worked beautifully.
My second ‘bite’; cured mallard, pickled roots, nuts and lichen was decent but perhaps just a little underwhelming compared to the ham hock dish. I thought it needed something else in there, just to lift it a bit more. In any case I’d ordered this dish because the idea of eating lichen was intriguing. Unfortunately I couldn’t pick the individual flavour out.
I should mention the bread, which was great and served with a side plate of whipped butter, juniper smoked black pepper and Hebredian sea salt with rosemary. I bet I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same. It all sounds incredibly pretentious and just a bit poncey. But you know what? It actually worked and the flavours actually came through. Anyone watching would have seen my facial impression change from bemused sneer to smiling approval by the time I’d stuffed the last piece of bread into my mouth. 
The next dish, a starter of raw roe deer, smoked and pickled beetroot, bramble and spiced bread was superb. The roe deer, chopped into a coarse tartare had a beautiful subtle gamey flavour. The plating style was interesting, with the food arranged outwards from the centre of the plate in a line.
I followed this up with an absolutely banging plate of Lamb loin and belly, beetroot, kohlrabi, kale, radish and whipped potato. The lamb was beautifully cooked with the rich belly meat tasting particularly impressive.
A dessert of locally foraged sea buckthorn, crowdie (a type of Scottish cream cheese) carrot and biscuit was one of the best things I ate on the whole Edinburgh trip. It was on the set lunch menu at £5 and I just couldn’t believe the amount of work that had obviously gone into this dessert, at such a ridiculously low price. Consisting of a sea buckthorn granita and a jelly, whipped crowdie an unusual carrot sorbet (which was absolutely delicious) a frozen vanilla parfait and sheets of meringue. I know all the work is in the preparation, and assembly would take no time at all, but still, f*ck, a fiver! It was phenomenal.

At this point I headed downstairs to the loo and was intrigued by the pommel horse (obviously for a bit of pre-piss gymnastics) and the industrial tapping and water dripping sounds piped through the speakers. Very unusual but also weirdly cool.

I loved Timberyard. The whole place felt seemingly effortlessly cool and stylish, but as is often not the case when using those words to describe anywhere, it also felt very welcoming. Put simply, it had a good vibe. 

The food itself is incredibly interesting and quiet unlike anything I’ve eaten lately. I’m trying to think of somewhere comparable and I’m drawing a blank. Believe me, that’s a good thing. Everything I ate was delicious but the lamb dish in particular was lovely and the sea buckthorn dessert was seriously impressive. Kernel table beer was available as well, which gets the whole place an extra massive thumbs up from me.

If you find yourself in Edinburgh, definitely go and eat here.

10 Lady Lawson Street, 

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Foxlow - London

I've always been a fan of the Hawksmoor group of restaurants, from way back when it was just the original site on Commercial Street. The cocktails are always excellent and well researched; the food is generally superb and for me strikes just the right balance between fun and serious eating. I still fondly rate their burger as one the best in London, I love the breakfast at the Guildhall site and for steaks, right across the board, in a now fairly crowded and competitive market, they’re still pretty much unbeatable.  So when a few months back I heard that owners, Will Beckett and Huw Gott were opening something a bit different, a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ called Foxlow, which ‘allows us to do many of the things we've wanted to do over the last few years, but which we couldn't really squeeze onto a Hawksmoor menu’ I was intrigued.

The new restaurant opened in November, on St John Street in my old much missed stomping ground of Clerkenwell and last week, as I was in the area and purely on the off chance I stumbled in, après boozing and managed to score an impromptu table.

The restaurant interior itself is instantly recognisable as being part of the Hawksmoor group. There is something of the same cool, architectural salvaged feel to the fixtures and fittings although there isn't quite the same Victorian gentleman’s club vibe.  On the night I visited, it was dark, heaving and business was brisk.

The menu itself is interesting, there’s no overriding theme or grounding in any one cuisine or place, it roams freely around the globe, partnering beef short rib with kimchi, which sits on the menu alongside imam bayildi and Iberico pork ‘pluma’. There’s also a salad bar section, which instantly evoked fond, teenage memories of taking the absolute piss in Pizza Hut’s display of bacon bits, iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes and cold pasta. Foxlow, perhaps sharing the exact same memories don’t allow the customers to help themselves.   So no three foot high, precariously balanced salad bowls here then. Bastards.
Starting off proceedings in a delicate, slightly sophisticated way, as is the natural way of things for me, I ate some anchovy and goats butter crisps from the snack section of the menu.  As you’d expect, they were umami packed but not overpoweringly so and cracking to eat with a cheeky cocktail. Of course, I don’t need any excuse and my accompanying Pickle Buck (a riff on the now infamous bourbon shot followed by pickle juice chaser) was pretty damn fine.
From this point onwards, something changed and delicate and sophisticated f*cked right off, sharpish as I descended into appalling excess and gluttonous gout inducing trough wallowing.
The ten-hour beef shortrib with kimchi was absolutely delicious. The rich, sticky meat, gelatinously balanced on the bone with the accompanying pungent kick of the kimchi was glorious.  
A donkey choking slab of eight hour bacon rib with maple and chilli was equally rich and sat by itself on the plate, unadorned by any accompanying garnish or frippery. An almost Spartan challenge to greedy bastardos.  Hello.
This was a friend’s choice, but she could hardly make a dent in it and offered it to me. I ate and I ate and I ate and then I ate some more. It was superb but seemingly never ending, not in a bad way but in an almost mocking way. I pride myself on being able to eat, but this was ridiculous. 
Maybe matters weren't helped along by my side order of beef dripping potatoes with Gubbeen and capers (as lovely as it sounds) or perhaps it was the addition of the slightly liverish tasting, meaty delight of the sausage stuffed onion, which I found faintly obscene to look at, like some kind of delicious wizened bollock.  

At this point, I was struggling. There was still a lump of bacon rib left big enough to feed a family of four (for a month) and I couldn't even meet its gaze, averting my eyes shamefully. But I had to be thorough; I wanted to sample a dessert…
The Bannoffee split is a whopping, dessert, tooth crumbling sweet but ridiculously good. It was the worst possible choice for someone in my advanced state of stuffed silly.  The portion size is enough for two, maybe even three. I shouldn't have, but I just couldn't leave it alone.  One more spoonful, groan. Just one more, groan. I almost finished it before floundering and pushing it away, disgusted with myself.

Settling up and waddling off into the night, I felt uncomfortably full, bloated and just a tiny bit sick…but in a good way. I enjoyed it a lot, in fact…as I was finding out, too much.

Foxlow is exactly as you’d expect from the seasoned owners of Hawksmoor, slick service, excellent cocktails, an interesting menu with nice eclectic touches and generally a lot of fun.

Some of the portion sizes are impressive and some of the food pretty damn rich. Don’t follow my example, order carefully and wisely and you wont have to be practically shoehorned out of the door in a coma.  It’s my own fault of course.  I'm drawn to the ‘big ticket’ filthy rich menu items like a moth to a flame. Mesmerised I forget about balance or restraint and generally get stuck in.  

Basically I enjoyed it so much, I made myself sick.  Go and don’t do the same.

69-73 St John Street
Telephone: 020 7014 8070