Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Flat White

Walking down Berwick Street the other day, I peered into Flat White and thought I’d give it a go for a coffee, rather than my usual Foxcroft & Ginger. I’ve always thought that great coffee aside, it was just a little too sceney and judgemental, and preferred the more relaxed space down at F&G.

London’s come a long way when you can even have a conversation about two top quality coffee outlets thrashing it out on the one street. With Milk Bar, Fernandez &Wells (x3), Sacred and several others in the vicinity, we really don’t have to look so far to get a good coffee these days. Where I work in EC1, we’re equally blessed (Dose, St Ali, Caravan, Farm), but most areas are still lacking.

The coffee here is Square Mile (to Foxcroft’s Monmouth) and expertly made and presented. The food on offer is more extensive but less gourmet. They offer the simple staples of an Antipodean brunch, so eggs benedict, Greek yoghurt, tomato on toast etc… rather than fancy sandwiches and cakes. It lacks the aesthetic 'counter of temptation' they have at Foxcroft, but seems to have more of a full service kitchen. I only had a whit-choc and raspberry muffin which was fine, so yeah. Not much to say on that!
I liked Flat White more than I thought. For some reason I’ve always assumed you go to one or the other, and I felt disloyal popping in. But perhaps you can café hop in the same way frequenting different pubs doesn’t bring the guilt. Staff weren't the coffee-snob monsters I'd read about either, both were very sweet.

The more establishments selling decent coffee, the less Starbucks and Costas we’ll see everywhere. Surely that's worth a bit of brotherhood. They’re probably friends anyway, I can picture them now all: “Can I borrow an avo, bro!” - "Yeah sweet as mate, too easy" and so on.

Still posery as hell and feels like a backpackers’s canteen (with iPads), but I’m thankful for it nonetheless.

Flat White on Urbanspoon

Friday, 25 November 2011

Kua 'Aina

I’ve walked past Kua ‘Aina several times and always thought it looked a bit naff. Not to mention lurid. And what do tiki culture and burgers have in common anyway? 

like the real thing...

But one day I had an absolute craving for a burger in the Carnaby area, and it popped into my head - not being a fan of The Diner or Carnaby Burger Co. And so once that was settled, I began to obsess over pineapple burgers.

Of course, it’s not strictly tiki, more classic 60s North Shore Americana. And so the burger connection starts to make more sense. It’s a small place, styled like a surfy beachshack with a very American grill station and no table service. It’s no-nonsense burgers in diner baskets, but they also do loads of great looking sandwiches – teriyaki chicken, clubs and so forth.

I had the pineapple burger with extra cheese (£8) – a 1/3 pound patty cooked medium-rare (I requested this, but they were very pleased to oblige). The meat is from Devon via Smithfield Market, and the same supplier does for John Torode also. It’s good stuff. 

I was glad of the paper in the basket, because this baby was juicy. Probably because it was nice and pink. But it could have had a little more charring.

Cheese was American and the pineapple (two rings) was nicely grilled, giving off its own sweet juices into the mix. Bun was a mix of sesame and poppy seeds, which was unusual but worked very well. I love poppy seeds and I devoured the whole lot in about two minutes. 

gherkin not included

When I visited, the fryer was off so no fries sadly. They offer sweet potato fries too. I ordered a gherkin which was extra (99p) – perfectly crunchy, tangy and delicious but surely integral to the American burger experience? Just as surprising was the massive carrot piece served with the burger. I ate it of course, but quite random all the same. Music wasn't Beach Boys or surf rock, but curiously The Lion King. 

Not much else to say really – a honest, un-gourmet American burger and best within a fairly small Carnaby radius. With added Point Break interior. Mahalo.

pineapple godliness
Food – 8/10
Drink – 7/10 (some wine and Asahi on draft)
Service - 8/10 - food brought to table quickly, no frills and happily so.
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 0/10 (didn't ask, didn't see, didn't get)  
Staff Hotness – 3/10 (more Eastenders than Blue Crush...)

Kua 'Aina on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Granger & Co

Granger & Co is the London incarnation of the new restaurant by Bill Granger, Sydney's favourite foodie son. I am guessing this is due to the existence of a not too dissimilar “Bill’s” café place in the St Martin's Courtyard development. But I imagine there is some marketing spiel for this, like a different brand proposition or market positioning and so forth.

I’d been excited about Bill Granger’s London joint for years. The Piglet and I had once found jet-lagged solace at his Darlinghurst café at about 6am on our Sydney trip – a veritable desert oasis (mainly due to the time of day as we'd been up for about 3 hours already, wicked area usually) and it became one of our meals of legend. Those ricotta hotcakes do deserve their cult status.

Would Bill Granger be able to transfer his vision of breezy and effortless Sydney lifestyle to London’s grey and frantic streets, even at the relatively sedate end of Westbourne Grove?

The man himself was there, greeting some people, chatting to others, but also clearing tables and bringing dishes out. At work, he wasn't all white teeth and smiley, blond Super-Dad, like all those black and white promo pictures of him, but a man under pressure. Which is good to see – as it’s clearly not all photo-shoots and cookbooks.

The interior is a step away from bills. It’s a lot more mature and design conscious. I think the pared-back, stark, wood-and-white thing with the communal dining table would have worked in London too (it’s done plenty elsewhere) but for the premium wining and dining crowd, who’ll be key here rather than the brunch crowd, the urbane details are a sound decision. That said, it’s still laidback – the slatted wood ceiling is a particularly great feature.

Onto the food – some chilli olives in that perfect emerald shade are delicious. We also went for the fritto misto for a starter: tempura battered fennel, courgette and onion rings (£5.60). This was nicely presented but somewhat lacking in flavour – they could have salt-bathed it like at Zucca for example, or maybe had some spice in the batter. But it fell short of the mark a bit.

Still slightly obsessed with my Meat Liquor chicken wings, the chicken wingettes (£7.40) were much more accomplished. Nicely marinated and charred, but with some tender, juicy meat inside. Great sweet and spicy dipping sauce, and some salad and red onion jam to join them. The portion wasn’t as big as Yianni’s, but these were better quality meat.

The parmesan-crusted chicken schnitzel (£10.50) is another dish which reminds me of Sydney. In this case not bills but a place in Surry Hills called Bird Cow Fish where the schnitzel was the best I’ve ever tasted. Bill’s London version was well-cooked and again nicely presented, but again lacked a punch. The parmesan crust wasn’t strong enough and could have done with being mixed with more black pepper and again, some salt. 

Seasoning is very subjective, but we’re not salt people (I never add them to chips for example) so I consider my palate at the more tolerant, less salt-hungry end of the spectrum. This wasn’t there. Still a good dish though, and easily remedied in the batter.

The crisp duck with plum sauce and clementines (£15.90) was delicious. A hearty, happy tasting duck leg with some semi-sticky rice and nestled on the sauce. It was the East Asian take on a plum sauce rather than a European one, fragrant with cinnamon and star anise. The clementines added another fruit zing to cut through the duck fat, and complemented the dish well as well as adding colour and juice.

We didn’t stay for dessert or coffee (Allpress of Redchurch, tick!) so that was that.
On to the service, which needs a mention. It’s a huge undertaking in any scenario, but with such high expectations and a great reputation, the pressure must be even worse. And so you would have everything down, surely. It’s been a year in the making. But there were some serious service let downs.

crisp duck

Our waiter didn’t know if we needed to order sides or if there were adequate carbs on two dishes. Such a schoolboy error – know your product! More senior looking members of staff spent more time chatting than helping resolve issues, of which I noticed several. Table issues, cold food and some very long waits for service. Bill Granger himself cleared a table whilst they stood about talking.

We asked one female server for the wine list as we’d finished our carafe as our mains arrived – she said she’d sent someone but nobody came and we had our mains with no wine. Or water – as this wasn’t offered. It was quite a tragic sight – the table was as bare as a canteen, rather than a sumptuous, uptown bistro. The 12.5% added to the bill smarted a little, as it’s not a very Australian thing to do yet somehow this was lost in the cultural exchange. Funny that.
I’m so glad to have Bill and his post-fusion Sydney concept here, but it does need a little tinkering around the service and possibly seasoning. Service in Sydney is the quintessential Australian chilled yet attentive: “too easy!” etc – knowledgeable about product and not missing a trick, yet friendly and laidback. We have the flat white, we now have the food - can we have the service too please? Without NY-quality waiting staff, the hectic thing just won’t work.

I’m pleased something noteworthy has opened in Notting Hill rather than Soho, Clerkenwell or Shoreditch. And teething problems must be allowed for. I’ll definitely be back – the pork shoulder pancakes, the burger and of course the brunch, all need to be sampled. But when you spend your main course without wine, looking forlornly around the room to catch someone’s eye, it's hard to remain so forgiving.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 7/10
Service - 3/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 4/10 (tap mentioned but their house-filtered option proferred) 
Staff Hotness – 5/10 (dapper but dosy)
Granger & Co on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Witchery (Edinburgh)

I’d been aware of The Witchery for many years but never had the opportunity to visit. So I was very excited, on that misty Edinburgh eve. The city has some great restaurants and a strong food scene, although it can be top-heavy and formal at times. Traditions are important here (as are the tourists looking for them), but it works because quality comes first especially with all things deemed Scottish. And Scots are just as in to Scottish things and Scottishness as tourists. Provenance is important up the road.

The venue itself is right by the castle, and incredibly atmospheric. All wood panelling, louche, dripping candlesticks and moody blood-red walls, it’s definitely marries up a whore’s boudoir with a medieval banquet, retaining an intimacy. The candelabras and teapots could plausibly jump to life and burst into a reprise of ‘Be Our Guest’.

I think some witches were executed here once, or maybe had their coven here or something. In Edinburgh, every second place has a wee ghostie, an execution or some sort of rebellion so you become blasé about it all, which is shameful. I’m aware it’s a touch of a tourist hotspot – but I wouldn’t say ‘trap’, due to the vindication of quality and also the amount of Scots who eat there too. Perhaps one of those places foreign dignitaries are obsequiously feasted before given some naff traditional token.

Dressed crab (£12.50) from Mull is served with a variety of accompaniments: samphire, lardons, quail egg and so on, but is served with a consistency closer to mashed up baby food than a salad. Tasted spot on though, and on a beautiful plate.

Haggis, neeps and tatties (£9.50) was a strong point. They’d be in trouble if it wasn’t! The haggis was good with a high meat content, moist and not dry or mealy like bigger portions can be. Neeps and especially tatties were in short supply, but I guess they're trying to distinguish it and make it a touch nouveau.

Three Little Pigs (£24.50) comprised bacon chop, pork belly and loin. It’s a carnivores’ feast but each component isn’t huge so it doesn’t look as obscene as it might.

Cider parsnips on the side weren’t really enough, so triple cooked chips (£4) were needed. Crunchy, delicious chips – these tasted like traditional chippy chips, despite being triple cooked. Best of both worlds.

Cairngorm red deer loin with a blue cheese and walnut pithivier (£26.00) was so promising and exciting. It was excellently presented and the bitter chocolate oil was an interesting touch. However the venison was a tiny bit tough, despite being visibly well-cooked, and the pithivier (a little puff pastry thing) was a tad dry. It was still very tasty though.

To finish off, as we could barely move we went for the sample of desserts – great value at £10.50. This included a rich chocolate torte, a passion fruit trifle, sorbet, crème brule, biscotto and a few other bits and bobs. All delicious.

The history in Edinburgh is inescapable. Broody, moody grey turrets, speckled with black, spiky monuments and towering hills, and some perfect Georgian crescents. It feels like a place of consequence and you can credibly believe armies and clans battling it out in a way that even The Tower of London doesn’t quite convey. 

It’s a great experience; service is attentive and food is solid. It’s a bit expensive and the wine list ascends into the stratosphere very quickly, but there are plenty of bottles below £40.  And it’s the town of Harry Potter’s conception (literary, not parental) – so what better excuse for a witchy time?

Food – 8/10
Drink – 7/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 2/10 (not offered but we fancied sparkling anyway)  
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (very smart)

The Witchery By the Castle on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Meat Liquor

A little tweety bird tipped me off that Meat Liquor (or is it #MeatLiquor?) was doing a soft-opening in advance of the big launch this weekend. Having missed out on the cultish fad of the van and Southeast London pub incarnations of Yianni Papoutsis’s irreverent burgers, I had to see what the fuss was about.

Now I’m an intrepid bloke at times, but just as Frank’s Campari car park was a Southern train too far, equally Meat Wagon/MeatEasy’s pop-up locations in Victorian sewers in Dagenham, or abandoned mental hospitals in Lewisham, or wherever, seemed too much for a just a burger. So thank God he’s now in the West End.

The space includes an indoor pavilion structure, which you could easily envisage as a mosh pit with the music they have on. It’s a big, dark, angry space with some incredible designs and graphics, largely in red, black and white. You seat yourself, but then it’s table service. You could easily be in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side, but it feels like London too.

Some New Cross Negronis started proceedings (£7) in jam jars, fairly punchy but could have been a little stronger, given the small amount of liquid.

Deep fried pickles (£3) are genius. Hot, crunchy batter surrounding proper American-style thick pickle slices – brilliant idea and so addictive. Possibly the perfect beer snack?

rubbish pic of a pickle

Buffalo wings (£5) are off the Richter, as my girl Fergie would say. I adore wings and these are very faithful renditions. Juicy, meaty wings, well coated with some zing, and an absolutely perfect blue cheese dip. Massive portion too for a fiver.

The burgers themselves (£7-8) are obviously also superb. Mine isn’t as pink in the middle as I’d like it, but the meat is so tender, moist and soft, that it doesn’t matter. It just melts into the mouth. It comes with salad, tomato and pickle, and then a spot of mustard, ketchup and possibly burger relish. I can’t quite tell, it’s dark in here. But no sauce is too dominant.

One slight let down is the fries. They’re fine but given the excitement around all the other dishes, they fade into the background. I suppose not everyone can be the star of the show, but perhaps they could look at some premium fries, such as the garlic fries one encounters in hipster-diner type places in NYC.

fries and a better idea of the pickles

I absolutely love this place. It’s like Byron for Satanists. It’s dark, clandestine and rebellious, and makes you feel like you’re in on the secret. But it doesn't ape the Prohibition thing one jot.

I love the anarchic feel, yet you could easily wander round, beer in hand, taking in the designs. Staff are passionate, Yianni himself was walking around making sure things were going well and the whole thing is going to be a massive hit.

If your idea of foodie heaven is in fact Hell, with the highest quality grease-feast, 80s rock blaring out and plenty of booze, then come join me.

Food – 9/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 7/10 (some long waits for drinks, but early days...)
Value – 9/10
Tap water tales – 0/10 (none offered or seen, cheating!)
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (cute, inked up girls and guys abound if that's your bag)
Meat Liquor on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

La Cave à Fromage

Some friends treated us to a wine and cheese tasting evening at a fancy fromagerie shop in South Ken, and we held out a little bit for the champagne evening. Four cheese and four matched champagnes – good stuff.

La Cave à Fromage is on that former roundabout opposite South Ken tube, definitely tapping in to the heart of Paris in London. It has a hugely comprehensive range of French cheeses (with a few English goats I noticed, imagine that in Paris!) and plenty of complimentary produce, such as charcuterie, breads and wine. I believe they even do brunch too. It’s a very professional, passionate business and they really know their stuff. They work with artesian cheesemakers across France to commission their own bespoke products too.

We started with a Chaource, which was a bit of an oddity. It’s a two-tone, two-texture cow’s milk cheese, which is soft, creamy and white in the middle and similar to a Brie or Camembert, but it also has a darker, more crumbly framing surrounding the centre. It’s delicious. The wine (this one was a sparkling, not a champagne – hmmmm) wasn’t very fizzy and quite sweet – from Gaillac in the Southwest.

Next was my favourite, the Beaufort. This had a similar look and feel to comte, but was more rich and creamy, rather than nutty. It is matured longer and was very addictive. In fact I ended up buying some. The champagne was also my pick of the night; crisp yet fruity, from a small, rebellious house near Epernay – Daniel Caillez, Cuvee Brut Premiere.

basque blue
The obligatory blue followed, from the French Basque country. This was good, but a bit forgettable sadly because everybody was crowing on about the Beaufort, including myself! I also had an amazing blue at The Oak recently and this wasn’t as deep in flavour. The champagne was from the same house. Daniel Caillez, but their rosé. Interestingly, this was sharper, drier and less fruity than their blanc. I didn’t like it as much, but it certainly went down easily at this point in the night…

some rustic charcuterie
Finally we had some Langres, which had been menacingly oozing its juices in the corner for quite a while, and giving off a punchy whiff. Somebody told me once that the smelliest, most challenging cheeses are actually a lot milder on taste than you’d think. Not the case with this one – it was hardcore and although I soldiered through it, plenty of others couldn’t finish it. It’s a cylindrical, soft cheese and not for the feint-hearted.

The champagne here was La Cave’s own house champagne – a perfectly drinkable, very yellowy drop. It was quite a simple champagne and I think probably chosen to not clash with the strength of the cheese. Also it’s probably the cheapest champagne too, so not as wasteful on the merry, lubricated palates of the crowd, now clamouring for top-ups.

They also put on some charcuterie for us; some excellent smoked beef slices which tasted intense, smoky and almost gamey, and then some slices of white, smoked pork fillet which weren’t as flavoursome. And there was plenty of bread alongside the cheeses (curiously ciabatta rather than baguette) – but no water.

Overall it was a great occasion and something fun I’d recommend anyone to do. It was about £30 and they do all sorts of different themed evenings, detailed on their website.

Food – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 7/10 (4 champagnes basic isn't great, but lots of liberal top ups so ok)
Tap water tales – 0/10 (no water offered or suggested, not too wise for a champagne tasting!)
Staff Hotness – 6/10 (one guy was Parisian chic, the other more 'garlic-round-neck' farmer - very nice though!)
La Cave A Fromage on Urbanspoon

Monday, 7 November 2011


I promise I’m not one for blogging drunken kebabs, or night bus chicken burgers or other filth. Honestly.

But there I was, after a lunchtime meeting in Soho and about to jump on a bus to Shoreditch for another meeting, and I was absolutely famished. I try to avoid Pret, and so Mooli’s caught my eye after longingly gazing into Barrafina, and I thought why not.

I’d seen mention of it and some platitudes on some blogs, but genuinely thought it was little more than an Indian burrito joint. It isn’t, but is no worse for it.

My Keralan beef with coconut, salsa and yoghurt (£5) took me quick aback though, which is why it wasn’t photographed in more salubrious surroundings! My quick snack had suddenly become bloggable and tasty; but I’m on the 55 and all of a sudden getting some very odd looks, as the weird guy in smart clothes, eating and photographing his smelly day-time kebab on a bus.

The beef chunks are tender and plentiful. The salad is high-grade stuff, not just watery iceberg. Nice tomatoes and raita through it too. The coconut gave the wrap a lighter, sweeter taste, which was balanced very well from a slight kick from the beef. It wasn’t too spicy by any means, but the warmth lingered a while, which I like.I did keep thinking how this burrito was missing refried beans and cheese though - forgive me.

I checked Urbanspoon out and it turns out Mooli's is fairly revered and rated, and I treated it like a common doner! So I’ll be back to try the other meats (goat, mmmm) and get more of the Mooli’s vibe. I didn't even notice the interior. My apologies for the déclassé pictures. But like burritos, they’re not photogenic stuff and all in the eating.

 Mooli's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Oak - or a tale of pub closures and two, overpriced, Notting Hill pizza joints

The Oak is arguably the original Pizza East. It certainly is in the Portobello sense anyway. An old pub (tick) with period features retained (tick) and yet a swish, upmarket menu focusing on antipasto and shared nibbles (tick) and then crowned with a massive pizza oven as a feature (tick tick tick). 

The crowd is the same too; loud, chattering and rather annoying types, of whose kin I do not excuse myself. If you don't like hedge fund Yanks, consider Lucky 7 or Crazy Homies next door. Oh wait, they're overrun with them too. You'd better leave Notting Hill in that case...

What The Oak also has, is a cocktail bar upstairs. And a great one it is too. There are busts of famous historical savants, mounted hunting trophies (of the taxidermised kind), beautiful period features such as the fireplace and incredibly high ceilings (is this an estate agents’ blog now?) and the whole space has a warm, Chesterfield-y, Babington vibe. The irony.

It’s part New York, part whiskey room of a posh Scottish country hotel - you could happily nestle in for hot toddies and board games all night. But what they deliver is a great cocktail and wine list, and small tapas plates; formerly Spanish themed but now rather contemporarily dubbed as cicchetti.


It’s also so dark and broody upstairs that the photos of our pre-dinner cicchetti came out terribly. Skip the cubes of pork belly which were overcooked. But definitely order the cheese selection though (£11 ish), their blue is so deep with flavour, it almost tastes meaty. Amazing. And the salt and black pepper martini with Tanqueray gin is something special too - £8.50 or so.

Back downstairs, it’s on to pizzas gastro-pub style on obligatory church chairs. Service is a little better than upstairs, probably because we are more visible. Pizzas are good here; they’re huge and toppings are incredibly generous. As they're so crispy and thin in the Roman style, you really could do with steak knives.

The proscuitto, rocket and parmesan pizza is a monster. Slices of tender proscuitto dominate the pizza more so than the cheese or rocket leaves do. Great for a carnivore and priced at a Pizza East friendly £13.50. Ouch.

The stagioni with ham, artichokes and olives was more balanced than the previous ham-fest, but still generous. The tomato sauce was more noticeable too. With the proscuitto pizza, I think it had been applied a little thinly and so became dried in, on baking. Compared to Pizza East’s rich, decadent base, The Oak’s tomato sauce is perfunctory at best. 

Pappardelle with duck ragu wasn’t as successful (£13.50). The pasta tasted homemade and was correctly cooked, but the sauce was a little weak and watery.

The seared tuna with salsa verde (£15.50) was an attractive dish: well-cooked and very nicely proportioned.

Overall, I think I prefer The Oak for this type of dining experience in the area. It’s less frenetic and sceney (although not to say that it isn’t guilty of either) and more spacious and relaxing. They don’t take reservations, but they will take your name and fetch you from the bar upstairs. They offer many tempting main courses if you don’t fancy pizza – I guess they’re not pigeon holing themselves by having pizza as their definitive proposition or indeed, in their name.

The cocktail bar certainly helps diversify things. If I didn’t want pizza, I wouldn’t go to Pizza East but you could easily spend a night boozing upstairs here. The private dining area is fantastic too.

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 6/10 (quite steep: with cocktails, wine, snacks, mains and others, bills could nudge £60p/h)
Tap water tales – 8/10 (ice jug brought without asking)
Staff Hotness – 7/10
Oak on Urbanspoon