Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Greenwich: Buenos Aires and The Hill

Greenwich is known for many things. Nautical history and the accompanying benchmark of world timekeeping. Old pubs and great London views from the royal park. Foodie highlights? Less so.

But there is hope, for an area which as a microcosm of tourist London is awash with tacky Tex-Mex venues, generic chains, smelly chippies and all you can eat Chinese buffets.

The market is a slightly condensed Spitalfields, with solid coffee from the Dose Espresso cart. Or if you’re daring, you could venture into the madhouse café Red Door. The abysmally named (and yet rather decent) Hola Paella offers Monmouth Coffee, the paella of course, but also a fully stocked Spanish deli and wine store.

Two recent meals I had were at Buenos Aires Café and The Hill. Buenos Aires café is on the villagey stretch of Royal Hill, with no shortage of Ye Olde Worlde cosiness, but not much in the way of modern hospitality trends. There is a fantastic butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger and cheese shop, but nay a flat white, negroni or rare iberico pluma in sight. Borough, Bermondsey and Maltby are not far however, and yes the traditional feel is Greenwich’s appeal. I’m not sure that this should apply to food though.

But on to Buenos Aires. It’s an Argentinian deli and café, which is to say ostensibly a regular Spanish or Italian deli, but with malbec, Quilmes and the odd empanada. I’m not sure which came first, but they also have a steak place in Blackheath, which is really where the Argies come into their own. My empanada here was fantastic, as are the sandwiches constructed to order using freshly sliced meats and cheeses from their extensive deli offering. Cheap too.

The Hill is an old pub converted into a neighbourhood Italian. But with a very regional British feel. There are huge pizzas, pastas and pints on offer. It’s a little bit like the inexplicably lauded restaurants of leafy Cheshire. That said, the staff are lovely (and Italian) and the food is reasonable. 

We shared a charcuterie platter (£9.50) and both had the tagliatelle al cinghiale – wild boar ragu, at about £11. It was sweet and well-flavoured but a little bit too mushy for my taste. I like my ragu slow-cooked for hours, with meaty solids and less of a sauce. It’s an ok option for a local, but not worth travelling for.

Greenwich itself is a little of everything we have in London. At the better end and not covered here, they have a Rivington Grill here as well as the fancy dining room at The Spread Eagle. But the good options are outweighed by the rubbish. To be fair, at weekends tourists outweigh locals – but this is seven minutes to London Bridge, not Sevenoaks itself, so the many '90s offerings are inexcusable.

Southeast London is on the up; Brockley, East Dulwich, New Cross, Bellenden Road – all these areas are dynamic and evolving. Greenwich would benefit ridding itself of a lot of the absolute rubbish in the centre, and keeping up. Contemporary dining does not detract from the many historical attributes of London’s film set. 

Buenos Aires on Urbanspoon
The Hill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ca N'Arabi, Ibiza

Just three kilometres from Ibiza Town, and pootling through a relatively dreary suburb, you certainly might feel a little anxious or confused on the way to Ca n’Arabi. But once you leave the urbanizacion, just a few hundred metres bring a complete change in scenery. It isn’t wild by any means, but you cannot no longer hear traffic and are surrounded by vineyards and orange groves.

The country hotel, or agroturismo as they’re known in the Balearics, is an old finca which has been refurbished and landscaped to provide the best of Ibiza shabby chic. The style is different to the billowing whites of Provence and Tuscany though. Ibiza is quite far south and the next stop is Algeria. While whitewashed houses do exist in abundance, there are Moorish influences everywhere; the terrain and cuisine are mountainous and meaty rather than delicate and floral, and so fiery hues of red and orange reflect the red earth.

Rooms are equally Ibicencan rustic – bold tiles, peasant artwork and lots of that oversized, broody Spanish wooden furniture. The inside area has deep sofas for relaxing, excellent wifi throughout and a few tables for breakfast. But the real appeal here is the outdoor space.

The pool combines hut tub, splashing around room and lap pool in a singular handy layout. Loungers surround it, as well as a few day beds to escape the sun. With about twelve rooms total, your chances of nabbing the best spots are good, given that many people will visit the beach. It’s perfect for that late afternoon post-beach flop and snooze.

Gardens are beautiful too. The buildings are laden with bougainvillea as well as quaint rural artefacts, and the surrounding area features ancient, gnarled olive trees as well as citrus and pomegranates, serenely framed by vines stretching into the distance.

On to matters of grape and other refreshment, unlike many of the more upmarket agroturismos on the island, it’s a little bit more DIY here. You can order drinks from reception, but the property is so compact that it’s easier to grab them from your minibar. Prices are very affordable; €3 for a beer, €15 for a bottle of wine, so it’s a no-brainer.

Breakfast is the usual Spanish continental, with a good range of meats and cheeses. The lovely, low key staff bake cakes and other treats throughout the day which are grab, as are Nespresso coffees.

Overall Ca n’Arabi is a fantastic place to stay in Ibiza, where it can be quite hard to avoid the hordes, or at the other end of the spectrum, to avoid paying €400 a night for not very much. The location is spot on – 5 mins drive to Ibiza town and about 15 to the southern beaches and airport. 

Prices here range between €150-250 depending on the month (Ibiza is incredibly seasonal, even May and October are a steal) and offers the balance of the luxe outdoor setting but without servile fawning which doesn’t sit right in Spain anyway. Ibiza isn’t Thailand, so get up and grab your own beer! One small pointer – as it's Ibiza, some hidden speakers with some chill-out music by the pool would be a nice touch in the afternoons.

No dinner, but see here for my previous post - a guide to Ibiza eating.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Royal China (Baker Street)

Going for weekend dim sum at Royal China on Baker Street is a London institution. It's not necessarily for the most discerning of Chinese diners, nor is it technically the best dim sum in town.

There are plenty of tourists but there are also Chinese families, hipsters and even the odd celeb (Jarvis Cocker getting stuck into some dumplings) so even if there is better dim sum in a car park in Croydon or every second Wednesday down an alleyway in Earls Court, this is still a fun, diverse London experience.

Long before Russell Norman, they wrote the book on no reservations. It’s egalitarian though; you take a numbered ticket and wait. Covers must exceed 200 I’m sure, and so the turnover is quick. You may see larger tables seated before you – the queue looked horrendous but we waited maybe 5-10 mins on a Saturday at about half three.

Honey pork puffs are one of my guilty pleasures. They’re obviously a very Western-friendly ‘entry level’ dim sum, but I love them all the same. Sweet in a way that few cuisines can (and should be able to) get away with, the combination of crumbling pastry and sweet porky filling is a winning one. Dim sum for the Gregg’s generation.

Prawn and chive dumplings and beef cheung fun are good. The texture of dim sum is something I’ve previously struggled with a little. The Chinese seem to have a steely propensity to handle the slithery and slimy. My initial reaction is a slight shudder, but then the fillings come through and save the day. Both solid dishes here. 

Char sui buns are the kings of dim sum for me. I could happily order 5 options of these and walk away as satisfied and accomplished as if I’d tried the most adventurous dishes on the menu. Pillowy buns torn open to reveal pieces of sweet, barbecued pork – this is a thing of beauty. Royal China’s version isn’t the best I’ve had (the meat component could have been more generous), but can you really have a bad one?

Our final dish (we had dinner in a few hours) were some deep fried duck rolls. These weren’t deep fried like spring rolls, but effectively battered sausages you’d get from the chippy except with some hoi sin tinged duck inside. The artery-clogging ability of these would be a challenge to equal - an absolute heart attack on a plate. Not that it stopped us wolfing them down.  

Service is standard Chinese: humorously brusque in that way which is somehow endearing and tolerated. If the servers were French, we’d be declaring an end to the entente cordiale. Rude, or at best, indifferent service is perversely one of my favourite things about Chinese restaurants; amusing and yet fair in its indiscriminateness. A bit like South Park.

Possibly the best thing about the experience is the ease of it. It’s super cheap (less than £20 including tea and service), very quick and thus perfect for a hangover. 

Food – 7/10 
Drink – 7/10 (tea spot on, otherwise I'd stick to beer) 
Service - 8/10 - exactly what it needs to be 
Value – 9/10 
Tap water tales – none asked, none offered 
Staff Hotness – 4/10 (beleaguered and frantic is not a good look)

Royal China on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal

Monday, 8 October 2012

Green Man & French Horn

Green Man & French Horn is a takeover of a West End pub in what was once known as Theatreland (is it still?) by the team behind Terroirs and others, to become a Loire Valley-specific wine bar. Food has a notable seafood leaning as well as some gamey numbers; no steak frites or even the ubiquitous bavette of latter days in sight...

I’ve been quite vocal about the loss of pubs but in some cases, it can be an improvement. Look at The Opera Tavern for example. There are a lot of generic, touristy West End pubs which London could survive without, provided the replacement is an improvement. In many cases it won’t be of course, but here it is.

It’s a narrow space, brightened up but still very pubby in feel. The wine list is strictly Loire, so there isn’t any champagne or even a more affordable cremant. Our table of four are partial to a drop of fizz, so we settled on a demi-sec sparkling gamay which had zing but wasn’t overly acidic.

Bar food and starters are a bit of a overlap – similar price points and levels of execution lead to some mixing and matching. But I guess some are changeable and some fixed. Most of the starters are more than suitable as small plates or bar food, priced between £5 and £8. But the friendly staff were more than happy for us to play around with these for the first course.

Rillettes with cornichons is a classic, and a dish I’ve enjoyed very much at Terroirs. I found this execution to be somewhat lacking strength of flavour as it was too lightly seasoned. Very smooth though. 

Fresh cheese was an interesting one. The sour flavours of this expanse of untreated cheese were quite an unfamiliar step away from the comfort of ricotta. It may not be for everybody, but it has a rustic, un-manufactured taste, brought out by the sweet shallots, olive oil and pepper to enhance the flavours. Quite unique.

Whitebait were fresh to say the least! Very pungent, these bad boys were hot, salty and spot on.

Rillons is a small cut of pork belly, and absolutely delicious. I rarely order pork belly because I find the fat to meat ratio too high, but this was a perfect way to enjoy the dish. Not only was the cut fantastic and meaty, but also as a starter, it seemed the ideal way to enjoy belly without being lumbered with a main course comprised half of pure fat. Perfectly cooked, this was crunchy yet soft, and full of flavour.

At this point, we had moved on to an unusual Coteaux du Vendomois (£29 a bottle) which had a slight fizz to it.

Scallops are offered as a main at £6 per scallop, one of our party had three. They were repeatedly and enthusiastically described as being like silk.

Two of us had the rabbit with salsify and cider, at £16. This was a great example of rustic French comfort food. Two meaty rabbit legs in a broth of cider, with plenty juicy carrots and parsnips. A lovely dish. My one gripe might be that the cider could have been reduced a little, to concentrate the cider-y taste and lessen the liquid.

Grouse with game chips was our final main – I can’t actually attest to the feedback on this one, but it looked great and its recipient (who has spent not a little time in France) certainly would have mentioned if it were otherwise. 

Desserts were a pear and salted caramel concoction (quite 2011 non?) and a tarte vigneron which didn’t taste as winey as I had hoped. But both were enjoyable. The cheeseboard looked very appealing but we were out of capacity. One for the return...

And there definitely would be a return trip. Our threatened (two hour) table turn never eventuated and so we were happy to stay for another couple of hours drinking more wine. The service was attentive, upbeat and chirpy throughout, and yes they were all French! 

It’s a cosy little place to have in one’s repertoire, especially in the chain wastelands east of Soho. Would be good for a date, or parents, or indeed perfect for a snack and the avoidance of theatre wine if you’re seeing a play too. A solid addition, quite unsurprisingly given the credentials, with the Loire Valley element giving it an original twist.
Food – 8/10 
Drink – 9/10 
Service - 8/10 
Value – 8/10 
Tap water tales – 4/10 (not offered, but brought once requested in a lovely carafe and glasses) 
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (young, French and jocular)

Green Man & French Horn on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chicken Shop / Dirty Burger

The Soho House Group have been busy bees this past few years, both with their clubs/hotels and also in food-led offerings, principally through Pizza East. The lucky denizens of Kentish Town were probably rather surprised not only to be receiving the third Pizza East, but also to be the blessed guinea pigs for two new ideas, premiering at the location. These are Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger.

Despite the fuss, and the potential for commercialism backlash, I have to say, they are both bloody good. Chicken Shop is focused on rotisserie rather than fried chicken, and does it extremely well. No bookings and a very dark space welcome those who descend the stairs. Service is attentive and positively brisk in a welcome way (we were ravenous) and so the rotisserie chicken sure enough appears instantly.

A nostalgic highlight among the sides are the crinkle cut chips (although these are bettered at Dirty Burger) but the chicken really is the star. It’s served in pieces unlike that impaled, under-seasoned bird at Tramshed – and is seasoned and charred in spots to give it a true grilled taste. Supermarket spit chicken this is not, but at £14.50 for a whole one, it’s a bargain.

My one gripe about Chicken Shop is quite specific – the house prosecco is £37 a bottle which is too steep for this venue. Other booze is well priced in comparison, so stick to that. So beyond that trifling lesson learned, it’s a great new concept and I’ll no doubt darken their stairwell for such a simple, satisfying feed.

Another star mention goes to the apple pie - homemade and apportioned to your table. The waitress let us have the biggest slice, easily good for two to share, and it was phenomenal even if my pic suggests otherwise:

Dirty Burger is round the back, in the car park. I’m impressed with the creative kit-out and branding of what is basically a burger van cocooned by corrugated iron. I’m sharply told that burgers come medium well, when I protested the lady very pleasantly explained that they would be so juicy, it didn’t matter. And whilst she was right, I’d still rather have had it a touch pinker. 

It is a great burger for the price point (sub £6), and I understand the assembly line uniformity keeps the prices simple and the slinging quick, but if Shake Shack and others of the ilk they’re aspiring to can cook to order within certain constraints, they should be able to equally. Another angle here is the confidence in meat quality and how that’s reflected in a venue’s willingness to go rare.

But that aside, for a quick burger experience I rate it highly. It was juicy and tender to the point where it probably could have been mawed.

Special mention, above and beyond the crinkle cut fries (which beyond the novelty shape aren’t amazing fries), are the onion fries. These are short strips of onion, battered and fried to create chips, with incredible flavour. Debatably the most memorable thing here. I could have happily devoured another serving while finishing up my pints of Camden Pale, but the queue was too long to hop up again.

Selfishly, I’m hoping for a similar theme park of comfort food to open closer to my house. These guys genuinely do have some great businesses here and I bet we’ll be seeing a lot more of them. 

Food – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 8/10 (quick and keen)
Value – 9/10 (excellent, if you skip the prosecco)
Tap water tales – 9/10 (tap offered in Chicken Shop immediately)
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (well selected, with something for everyone to enjoy)

Chicken Shop on Urbanspoon
Dirty Burger on Urbanspoon
Square Meal
Square Meal

Gecko Beach Club, Formentera

Gecko Beach Club is probably the best known hotel in Formentera. Perhaps Kate Moss stayed there once, that usually does it. They do have good PR, although there aren’t hundreds admittedly.

The island has always been a big of an enigma for many - (is it in the Canaries? can you even stay the night there?) - which has handily kept it relatively crowd-free for its aficionados. Only accessible via quick ferry from Ibiza, the lack of an airport has kept development low. Admittedly more is being built, but it’s all relative to what was there before (not much) and the paradisaical feel of the island endures away from the port.

The hotel at Gecko is a refurbishment of a previously unlovely hotel, and traces of the quite ugly or should I say functional, building remain. The beauty is in the public space. The restaurant and veranda look onto beautiful gardens, now replete with a pool and pool bar, and the sea is all of ten steps away. The furniture is designed for lounging, and the Ibicencan ethno-lite chill out music emanating from hidden speakers in the greenery creates a genuine calm. 

It’s completely unforced and the concept of having nothing to do except relax and live your days slowly eventually does permeate this itchy city-dweller. I usually take about four days to forget work and genuinely kick back, but at Gecko it happens within the hour.

The bar and restaurant area cater for refined tastes (the wine list is quite something) but are also completely unpretentious. On the particular day below, the chicken Caesar salad and spaghetti pomodoro were exactly what the doctor ordered, but cuisine ranges from some Med-Asian fusion (I know, but it’s actually very good) to burgers and club sandwiches. Cocktails are camp, kitsch and ridiculous, exactly what you want from a beach club.

Everything is engineered so that you don’t need to leave, and you really don’t except when it comes to beach time. The Migjorn Beach sweeps along Formentera’s south coast, but the particular strip by Gecko isn’t the best bit. There is a boardwalk which leads to a fantastic beer and pizza shack along the beach, but the best part is much further east, close to Flipper & Chiller – a showy beach bar.

Or even better, head to Ses Illetes at the north of the island (about a ten minute drive from Gecko) and you could be rewarded with scenes like this, with water so perfect and clear, you can hardly believe it was a two hour flight, rather than twelve.

Gecko’s rooms aren’t the most exciting, they’re functional and lacking a little in flair but with the superb lounging space and Formentera’s pine-scented landscape and coastline, it doesn’t matter one bit.