Monday, 28 May 2012

HIX at The Tramshed

Mark Hix’s Tramshed has been long on the horizon, but seems to have been worth the wait. There have been battles with residents and the council to do with licensing (who moves to Shoreditch and complains about late bars?) but once approved, came together rapidly and on Friday night was in full swing on its third day.
 
mezzanine level

The premise is chicken and steak. Quite strange bedfellows ordinarily, but even more so in the suspended Damien Hirst commission towering overhead; featuring a chicken and a cow in formaldehyde. Having since seen the exhibition at the Tate Modern, I've learned a little more on Hirst's work, and it’s certainly an attraction and conversation piece. I personally love it but can understand the doubters.


Art blog this is not, however (just as well, as that’s about all I have), and so back to the scran. At £25 and midway through a balmy pub crawl, the chicken and chips for two seemed a perfect stopover on our night. The chicken itself is served impaled and the tray collects the juices. I suspect a mass rotisserie somewhere churning out hundreds of these poor dears, but they are free range and so probably quite pleased to end up in such a striking environment.


It’s extremely tasty, very juicy and tender , and you even get the claws, should you wish! The chips were great, I think double cooked, very crunchy and thin – and great with the herby chicken juices. A simple, honest and delicious dish. You do carve your own, but this was actually quite fun.



Drinks-wise, many of the wonderful Mark’s Bar favourites are on the menu – but at the same prices which somehow seem a little steep here. North of £11 for a negroni in Shoreditch (as an aperitif at dinner) seems punchy even though I think nothing of paying it in Mark's Bar. I'm guessing he doesn’t want to diminish his value in W1.

The room is fun; it’s buzzy, youthful and sceney already. As well as the Hirst, there are a few more of the modern art oddities Hix is fond of, and there is an admirable feeling of spaciousness. Not just because of the 50+ foot ceilings, but with table spacing too. Tramshed’s own bar is impressive too, running the length of the room with plenty of seats.

bar diners
 
groovy, homely toilet

Light Bar comparisons are obvious, but this is a far slicker operation. It’s not necessarily the cosiest place, but will be a great option for big, boozy group dinners with friends in an area where demand is always growing. I probably need to go back and try the steak (5 week aged sirloin only, aged in a ‘Himalayan salt chamber’) – and get stuck into the wine list too. I had Hix’s own Oyster Ale which deep and complex, but ultimately became a little too sluggish in quantity. 



So overall a great new addition. Lots of fun, a distinctive environment, passion for the space and finish, and thankfully, a unique offering from Hix’s other establishments, keeping those accusations of chain-like expansion at bay.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 7/10
Service - 9/10 (quick and keen)
Value – 8/10 (good, easy on the cocktails perhaps!)
Tap water tales – 4/10 (the classic two-option feint, so had to invoke the third, tedious)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (lots of busy, cute young things tearing around)

HIX at The Tramshed on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Electric Brasserie

Why isn’t West London better in foodie terms? Openings are thin on the ground, and for such a well-travelled and well-heeled populace, the foodie offerings are fairly poor. Soho is booming in foodie terms of course, and East London and SE1 are buoyant too. Eateries are opening all over, so why not here? Maybe because the current residents can still afford the frequent holidays which all this eating out has replaced for the rest of us...

Notting Hill was once like East London, but the edginess was counterbalanced with penniless aristos and a good sized European community, which gave it such an international feel. Whereas East London feels very British, and has international folk admiring and integrating into the vibe, rather than bringing their own.

Notting Hill has the Moroccan and Portuguese of Golborne, it has Garcia, Mr. Christian's... genuine foodie heritage, and The Ledbury at the top end of things is stellar. So why on earth is The Electric still one of the hot spots in W11? 

It’s one of the weak links in the empire for sure. The brasserie is packed daily, but smells like a greasy spoon. The pseudo-Parisian, quasi-McNally bistro menu is tired, and the food lacks flair. Let me caveat this moan by saying that I found the service very professional and slick, and the drinks are great. Price-wise it's reasonable too. But the food isn’t well seasoned or executed at all.


The burger used to be a bit of legend around these parts. But in 2012 you can’t get away with mediocrity in the >£10 burger field any more. Even worse, it’s a £12 burger. And you can get far better for little over half that.

London is awash with post-gourmet burgers; with fastidious thought going into the bun, the cheese and the other accompaniments, let alone the meat. This patty was mealy and heavy on the breadcrumbs. I also wasn't asked how I'd like it cooked, leading to a medium-well husk. And this floury cold bun is more at home in a chain pub in Basildon.


The bar steak-frites was overcooked for medium rare, and the fries – again once a thing of legend – were tasteless. At £15, one should be suspicious I guess. Which is why at this price point, most places will deliver a bavette with much better results.

Fish-wise, there was a choice of sea bream, cod and salmon and this at least did receive some positive feedback. I think the particular one appears cooked to a cinder but the recipient liked it.


The Electric is trading on past glories and disappointingly complacent. But unlike its Soho equivalent, Café Boheme, the quality has deteriorated. And whereas Café Boheme's trad feel can support some louche decay, The Electric's recent modernity cannot. Fundamentally it desperately needs a food revamp; their brunch is no better unless you want a croissant and a bellini…

However, looking at it pragmatically, the buzz is still great, the drinks are good and the people-watching is enough for the crowd to overlook average food as they scope out the room. On second thoughts, perhaps different priorities for Notting Hill’s diners are what keep would-be openings at bay. That and outrageous rents of course.

And to think I made it through a Notting Hill post without bringing in the shambolic Granger & Co, or the ham & cheese toasties masquerading as croque monsieurs scam. Oh.
 
Food – 4/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 6/10
Tap water tales – 8/10
Staff Hotness – 7/10

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

MEATmarket

Forgive the capitalised shouting, but I'm going to spell it correctly this time. Clearly it's key to the BRAND.

Following on from the ever extant success of MEATliquor, this is something quite different. A total pain to find, it’s inside Jubilee Market, which isn’t near the Apple Store (thank you Google maps) but next to the Roadhouse, if you’re unfortunate enough to know where that is. 

view from the top

The location is a bit like the skanky old market in Manchester’s Arndale Centre, and as my Mancunian friends might say, a bit snide. It’s not somewhere to hang around, but is an edited offering of the burgers and drinks you’d find at Meat Liquor or the predecessors. 


The three burgers on offer are all pretty similar – Twitter seems to be gushing over the 'Black Palace’ burger, but it’s not too different from the ‘Dead Hippy’ (both £7) except with some onion and without the Dead Hippy sauce. The third burger is also a Big Mac subversion so the choice isn’t something to worry about.

For that reason, I went for the Philly Cheesesteak at £8. A legendary piece of grease, I’ve had this dish in the US but never successfully over here and I thought it would be executed faithfully. And it was, pretty much.


The chopped rib-eye steak was well cooked, but frankly dominated by copious onions and green peppers. Seasoning could have been stronger. When a mouthful was more steak, it didn’t have huge amounts of flavour. The greasy, sweat sub was spot on though, as was the ridiculous stuffing of it, but this didn’t wow me. Chips were dull too.


I’d love a recommendation for a good Philly Cheesesteak in London.

My friend had a burger, which he found good but unremarkable, saying he preferred Byron. I am a big fan of the MEATliquor burgers, but I think the environment definitely has a big impact on the enjoyment. If great steaks were served in motorway service stations, would they be as enjoyable?
 

I get that it’s providing a quick hit of a popular yet not always accessible burger, but it’s no fun at all. Talk about removing the thrill. They should have waited for the follow-up to be as special, or more so. The site is just too bizarre and even some cool signage doesn’t pep up where you are. I'm a big fan, but I’m not really sure why they’ve bothered, or why anybody else should for that matter.

Food – 6/10 (good but devaluing itself)
Drink – 6/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 8/10 (DIY from the ice and water machine)
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (pretty girls, helpful)
Location and Site - 1/10
 MEATmarket on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

Friday, 11 May 2012

Polpo


Tearing around Soho in 2012, well fed from sharing plates in dusky, no bookings eateries and extremely well watered on prosecco…it’s sometimes easy to forget where it all began. Very few things are truly original, and personally I get more New York than Venetian inspiration, but we all owe a lot to Polpo.

Polpo only opened in 2009, but has trailblazed a path to infamy in a short time. Hot, broody and at times frustrating, it's a natural home for the many aesthetes and louche of this town. I'd never heard of a Venetian bacaro and have no idea what it should be; I found Venice a bit of a theme park but I assume there must be more to it.



The food at Polpo is very easy – while officially eschewing the pizza/pasta Italian schtick, there are several smaller pasta dishes and plenty of pizzette which strategically cover these requisites off for the uninitiated.

On this visit, we had so much that I’m not sure I can capture it, or remember. It’s loud (80s rock and some cheesy power ballads provide a fun, targeted soundtrack) and very boozy. But here goes...

Meatballs are a favourite here, and indeed its offspring Da Polpo specialises in them. The pork and fennel ones have to be the winners, rich in flavour and in a thick sauce. You can order them with spaghettini and get your pasta fix that way. I prefer them solo, devoured messily and whole.

Fritto misto was spot on – hot, salty and yes, I concede, typically Venetian.


The pizzette are another speciality. Prominent, intact egg yolks seem to be a favourite across the Russell Norman stable and the spinach, parmesan and egg pizzette is quite the dish. Attractive, indulgent and begging to be burst.


There are a few more pizzette, possibly too many, considering there were also two on the specials when I visited. The bresaola one I tried was ok – generously topped with slices of cured beef, rocket and parmesan shavings. It was a little overcooked though - as the cheese beneath had dried in, there was no connection or adhesion between the toppings and the base.


Lamb and cannellini stew with wild garlic leaves (nice seasonal touch) was good – tender lamb and plenty of it, but a tad watery and a bit repetitive. The Piglet called it gruel, but I think it was better than that. We had heaps more, but we were too busy putting the world to rights to have pictured it Or even to remember it, frankly.


So while the food isn’t perfect in every execution, it’s undoubtedly very good. The menu is expansive and there is plenty to help line your stomach against the copious negronis and prosecco you’ll definitely consume. The staff waver on that delicate balance between acceptably cool aloofness and just chatting to their mates – some better than others. The guy singlehanded running the downstairs bar deserves a mention – tough job.

And while it has progeny of its own, and many others owe it dues, it still has a unique buzz to. Norman certainly seems to be an expert at creating the right buzz. He’s our own McNally (ignoring McNally being a Brit) although the good lighting and Italian buzz replace the grandiose sense of occasion. No you can’t book, but yes, you can stay all night getting sloshed, and keep your table in peace. 

Food – 8/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 7/10 (food fine, about £6-8 a dish, drinks can tot up though)
Tap water tales – 8/10 (carafes brought and topped up, room temperature though)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (inked, skinny, youthful - bit into themselves)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Japan - Coffee in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya


“Where can I find good coffee in Tokyo?” autofilled as soon as I began typing it before our trip. I’d heard tell of coffee shops being everywhere in Japan, but very much in the mainstream American mould – watery drip coffee at breakfast and Starbucks and twee Japanese imitators peddling milky rubbish.

But I was very wrong, as I soon learned. Yes those elements are prevalent in Japan, but there is also a funky, meaningful coffee scene, focusing on either environment and subculture (Manga Art Café? French Maids?) or that typical Japanese obsession of doing one thing excellently, like single origin beans or ‘extreme’ latte art.

affogato before lunch?!

Another strong point is that many independent cafes also do proper evening food and sell alcohol too, morphing seamlessly into bars, something which unlike Continental Europe, the UK can’t seem to fathom. God forbid we have our evening drinks in the same place we get our breakfast.

So rather than gargantuan mugs of weak lattes at Central Perk throwbacks, we were spoilt for choice. And here’s a round up of some of the places we visited.

I’ve already written effusively about Glorious Chain Café for their burger, but bonus points to them for being the first place I found where ‘long black’ rather than ‘americano’ featured on the menu. And it’s a diner more than anything else. Great staff and wifi too (which you can get onto outside in the mall).


Streamer Coffee (which we spent days before locating it referring to as Steamer, which I still think works better) was a cool place, just north of Glorious. Coffee here was serious business, but my long black was too strong, even for me. 

Having seen an image of their Military Donut (sic), I was desperate to try one. Although it's chocolate, coffee and pistachio icing, it sadly wasn’t that tasty, but looks damn cool:


 

Sunday Issue is a gallery, bar and library of coffee table fluff situated above On The Corner, a diner we went to which also has great coffee courtesy of a Bear Pond Espresso exclave at the front. These collaborations between brands and establishments, denoted with a little x, are hugely popular in Japan.

Sunday Issue was very cool, but the staff were a bit into themselves, Bear Pond was great coffee-wise, but slightly ruined by all the fag smoke from the diner.

too kool for service?

Further into Harajuku, a quirky establishment with a bit of welcome outdoor space (and brilliant wifi) was iki-ba, a veritable complex including a vintage trailer, a two-story Wendy house and other random fixtures to enjoy your coffee in. Espresso-based mainly, this had more of a bar feel.



If you find yourself out in Kichijoji in Tokyo’s Western suburbs, possibly visiting Inokashira Park or the Ghibli Museum, the Manga Art Café offered a good respite and again, great wifi. It’s a fun place to people watch, buzzing with legions of excitable and yet impeccably well-behaved kids. Fun latte art on the flat white too:


My absolute favourite café and coffee in Japan was from Omotesando Koffee. This is tucked away in a residential street north of Omotesando Hills and definitely worth the trek. The area itself is architecturally quite interesting, with some fantastically designed apartment buildings with a West Hollywood feel to it all.


This guy, owner/designer/barista, also designed the Monocle Cafe in Ginza.

The café itself is the ground floor of a little house, and the space is incredible. The pictures don’t do it justice so do visit for yourself or at least find better pics. It has beautifully discreet signage, and a tiny Zen front garden to sit in. The interior is all clean lines, minimalist and yet warmth through the wood, perfectly balancing the modern and the traditional:




The packaging is perfect (such a forte of the Japanese) and the coffee is fanstastic. I dare you to grab a coffee there and leave without wanting to set up shop yourself:


Our favourite spot in Kyoto was a spot called eFish sandwiched between the Kiyamachi canal and the main river, with views of both. It has a modernist feel with its strong geometric design (the windows and shelves for example) but the smaller touches were more contemporary in design. Again, this place was filling up as a bar when we headed off to find food.



And in Nagoya, you could do a lot worse than Waltz in the Sakae area. This café-bar is upstairs and hugely spacious, with great drinks and a funky b-boy feel to it.



For every venue we went into, especially around Shibuya, Harajuku and Omotesando, there were countless more we didn’t get to try. 

Try Mud Café or the many others alongside the tracks towards Daikanyama, or Bonjour Records which is also a brilliant music and clothing store. Or along the Meguro river at Nakameguro. Or around Parco and north of Seibu, where Shibuya gets much more civilised…

Interestingly for Hario fans, conversely the decent Japanese coffee places seem to shun those products for US-based Chemex ones. The grass is always greener, eh?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Japan - Burgers of Tokyo

A curiosity about Tokyo I wasn’t previously aware of was their love of a good burger. It’s not hugely surprising – Japan and the US probably have the most genuine post-war friendship and forgiveness of any two opposing nations, and shared a pretty phenomenal boom afterwards. And so Americana in post-war Japanese society is everywhere; the English used, the school system, even the popularity of baseball. And of course the food.

I would say the best burger I had was at Glorious Chain Café towards Jingumae, Shibuya. We were massively hungover after 4 hours of all you can drink karaoke (tequila and tonic is delicious, who knew!) and managed to haul ourselves into here.



The bacon cheeseburger (about £12) was a hangover dream. Gloopy melted cheese, proper bacon and plenty of it, and a charred, pink patty, full of flavour. The ultimate dirty burger and exactly what I needed. Here’s the money shot:


Golden Brown was an understated yet cool place in Omotesando Hills. It’s small, cosy and takes its burgers seriously.



It wasn’t quite as good though. It came out automatically medium-well (whereas Glorious had asked how I wanted it) and the patty was a little slim. Good brioche bun, but anaemic, overly salted fries. Also about £12.




Ho Ho Kum is an upstairs Native American themed place in northern Harajuku. They have a great selection of beers, and do heaps of burgers, in addition to other food. They’re owned by The Great Burger, who have two outlets in the area.


The burger here was juicy, oily and perfectly satisfying, but was not as flavoursome as I had hoped, or indeed as it looks. The bun was a tad dry, and the fries were quite disappointing too. All for about £10. This Yokohama brewed US-style pale ale was about £7!




You find Hawaiian restaurants everywhere too, which is notable considering Pearl Harbor (sic). Kua Aina burgers which we have in London, have a couple of branches too. These groovy Hawaiian micro-brews I found everywhere were particularly delicious:



And finally…for some reason, the Japanese seem to love these retro steak burgers, which I can only recall frozen courtesy of Bird’s Eye or Findus as part of a kids’ tea. However, they serve them with a soy sauce, rice and all the traditional accompaniments. Quite odd – so of course I had to try one:


That was in Kyoto, and bloody tasty actually.

We saw loads more burger joints, especially in the youth centric areas of Shibuya and Harajuku, but eating more probably would have been a bit excessive considering where we were. Metropolis magazine (a quality, upmarket TNT) had a burger special while we were there, which highlighted many more places serious about their burgers.

I’m glad to have experienced a few solid burgers and some Japanese Americana. I was impressed with the thought given to the cheese, bacon and especially buns, but the fries were lagging and McDonalds-y. Not a triple cooked chip in sight…