Monday, 25 June 2012

Brasserie Zedel

So before I go any further on Brasserie Zedel, it’s important to mention that I went during the soft launch. I appreciate fully what that means (although it's fine to credit a successful soft launch of course). And I understand it really is buyer beware during this period, and a time to iron out difficulties or menu duds on willing guinea pigs (but at this stage, only the service should need practice).

Our starters were a variety of Parisian type salad dishes. Prices are incredibly low – between two and six hard-earned pounds will get you most of the starters on offer. The selection is vast and a bit repetitive, and could do with some translation for some of the less well-known dishes. My melon and ham wasn’t that inspiring – the prosciutto was utterly tasteless so was ostensibly just a plate of melon.

Mains were steaks all round – onglet at £10.95 and the fillet mignon at £15.95. A good French brasserie needs to be able to deliver a solid steak frites if nothing else (dull starters are forgivable distractions as the queues at Relais de Venise will attest) and those of BZ definitely need some attention as they will sink or swim on the strength of their steaks.

The onglet was a desperately unattractive plate of food; the low lighting and lack of daylight in the room (more on this later) mean that my photos are sub-par, but it really did resemble what you’re thinking. The jus was more an explosion of browny pan oil even though the steak was correctly cooked and sliced.

The fillet mignon was better: the meat was juicy and well-cooked but the portion was quite measly even at such a knock-down price. Again the photo does actually do the sauce justice – it tasted good but aesthetically it was greasy and split like an industrial-grade French boob job. 

Fries were actually very good, so credit there. Desserts were good too. So onto the issues, beyond the ugly steak plates.

Service was endearingly chaotic. The hordes of staff were charging around trying to get everything done but it seemed to be a constant uphill battle. I hope they will calm down as the mood was definitely infectious – our table certainly felt on edge because the serving staff were visibly so. The house wines (there is a selection with grape types and years, but unnamed wineries) are sketchy – avoid the 2010 Pinot Noir at all costs which was undrinkable and go for a safer choice at that price point, like a Cotes du Rhone.

Other than the army of headless chickens, my other main gripe is with the space and the vibe itself. I’m sure BZ is going to be hugely popular with the churn of theatre-goers and day-trippers from the Home Counties, but I don’t see it infiltrating itself into the consciousness of London’s high end lunchers in the way of The Wolseley, or The Delaunay more recently.

It felt like feeding time on a gargantuan cruise ship and the cheap prices (rather than great value) and superannuated diners only support this. If you took every Café Rouge in London and amalgamated them into a subterranean pink dining room which probably wouldn’t have been accepted at Caesar’s Palace, you’d be about there.

For what it’s worth, I loved the look of both bars and thought the upstairs café was also a cleverly designed, compact space. But I certainly wouldn’t return to the main dining room. And a final note: the doorman at the street level had the attitude more of a beleaguered bouncer – surely you’re supposed to welcome, not bark – compared to the absolute gentlemen at The Wolseley, it was another reminder of that very delicate line between accessible and crass.

Food – 6/10
Drink – 6/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 8/10
Staff Hotness – 5/10
Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

Friday, 22 June 2012

Anna Mae's

Following my venison burger, it’s another quick one on Anna Mae’s Mac n Cheese. It’s kind of obvious what they’re hawking, but I think there’s a little confusion as I’m sure I saw them pitched up on the South Bank last year, battling Pitt Cue over for the pulled pork crown. A look at their website indicates they still do a range of ‘Southern Street Food’, but on Sunday in Marylebone, it was all about the mac.

Not a huge deal to say really. I had the Don Macaroni which was £5.50 and had some dried bacon bits sprinkled on top. They were good, in that there’s no such thing as bad bacon bits, but there wasn’t anything remotely culinary happening here. 

Yes it was cheesy, but it was all liquid and I do prefer the odd lump or slightest hint of solidity. The pesto was out of a clear squeeze bottle so I have no idea if it was homemade or not, but I’m not too hopeful. 

There is a place near Delicatessen in New York which only does macaroni cheese that I’ve never tried, so there clearly is a pinnacle in this niche which hasn’t been reached in London. Hawksmoor still have this one I reckon.

So Anna Mae’s aren’t pushing any provenance, or indeed any story. It’s comfort food prepped in bulk – the mac could have done with more seasoning, but it did have some bite which pasta at this school dinner scale rarely does. Decent portions and chirpy service. If you see it around, it might just be exactly what you’re hankering for, but it didn’t rock my world.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Wild Game Co.

Bit of a street food theme for this post, and the next. The craze became a movement, and now it’s practically ubiquitous. Contemporary big hitters such as Pitt Cue and MEATliquor have their humble beginnings in vans, so there’s certainly a more slick, ‘eyes on the prize’ ambition in the whole affair now. The branding is considered, the provenance is tight and probably most important for the aim of going viral, there’s a good story.

City-type gone hawker has been done though; we had Brewed Boy a few years back and the lovely chaps at Pizza Pilgrims are making waves. That current street food operators are rather plummy, self-aware and well-spoken (read: well-funded) is inescapable. Stinky onion burgers at the funfair these are not.

And speaking of those Pizza Pilgrims brings me neatly onto their sometime neighbour The Wild Game Co. They've got their typeface down, their slingers are approachable and that tri-force of provenance, poshness and story merge into something quite reassuring and familial: the deer for their venison goodies are shot at the owner’s family farm in Scotland. 

All terribly media friendly, which is possibly why they won a YBF award for Best Street Food. But cynicism aside, surely the food measures up too?

It does. I had the burger which was a reasonable feed at £5.50. I’d wanted the steak for just a quid more, but it was sold out. As were the chips, and they only had four sausages left too, which left a few punters disappointed. So possibly their stock prepping needs some attention.

But back to the burger. It was thicker than it looked – very rich and gamey but thoughtfully the bun is specked with dried cranberry and has mustard powder through it, so it provides some offset to the venison meat. Filling, sweet, dense and smoky – I enjoyed it a lot but I was slightly relieved once I’d finished. Any more might be a struggle due to the richness.

It’s served with a bit of salad and some mashed up onions and melted cheese – almost Philly cheesesteak grill style with a little cherry tomato. So what could have been a fairly lumbering, plain burger actually had quite a few elements to highlight the quality venison.

I was gutted about the steak as it looked brilliant; medium rare pieces sliced into the same bun with the same accompaniments. And I’ll definitely return to try it, even though I felt a little guilty not getting my usual nduja pizza from the Pilgrims…

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Old White Bear

Dropped into The Old White Bear after a bracing walk on the Heath, including this spot which spookily reminded me of the lake and abandoned sewer building in the It film:

they all float down here...

This used to be a traditional boozer, but was tarted up as I think, is every old boozer’s fate in this area. Foreign monied incomers MUST feel comfortable in pubs! So now the actual pub area is a tragic little gathering of three tables and some stools sandwiched in between two dining areas. But outside of main dining hours, you can seemingly sit anywhere and the staff were very friendly so it’s not too restaurant-y, like The Freemasons for example. It's the same team behind The Oak in Notting Hill - another pub turned eatery.

I had beef, the king of roasts, and was heartened to ask how I’d like it. It wasn’t actually as medium rare as requested, but was pink enough to be tender. Generous too. At £17.50 it’s really at the peak of what a pub roast should cost, but I did leave debilitated, which is the point I suppose.

The Yorkshire pudding was very dense and heavy, which I enjoyed as sometimes they get too soggy from the gravy. And said gravy certainly would normally disintegrate any other yorkie – it was incredibly watery and lacked flavour. Although it was reddish in hue of which I generally approve (because either red wine or tomato paste are worthy additions) and it also implies it’s not pre-made. Still rubbish sadly.

Roasties were good – oval shaped so not too gargantuan. Veggies were parsnips and carrots only, nothing green which I think detracts from the perception of a proper Sunday roast plate. Some green beans or broccoli would give the impression of a more complete plate. And perhaps might have made it feel less stodgy.

My dining companion had the veggie mezze or similar; quite a meagre dish when contrasted with the roast, yet punchy at about £10. It was over very quickly, and quite oily throughout.

The wine list was impressive, and plenty by the glass although they're served in 125ml and 175ml so watch out for the 'large' pricing. 

I’d return to try the regular menu as it did have few intriguing things on there. I also liked the warm, fresh bread selection which was served with room temperature, seemingly house-made butter. So extra points there, and for good service. But weak gravy from a lofty kitchen is a cardinal sin on a Sunday, and for £17.50, quite a let-down. 

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 7/10
Staff Hotness – 6/10

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Workshop Coffee (ex-St. Ali)

Working close to Workshop Coffee  as I do some days, I’ve spent quite a lot of time there. I’ve known it primarily as St. Ali and the unexpected name change hasn’t quite sunk in.

Getting good coffee in London is no longer a rarity worth crossing town for, and a decent brew knocked up with Square Mile, Monmouth or Climpsons is easily found now. But Workshop and a few others go a little further. The single-origin beans, house roastery and faffy techniques nobody really needs like AeroPress, Chemex and siphon are what elevate them to the highest echelons of the land of coffee. The upshot of this is the possibility of paying a criminal £3-4 for a single origin filter from their specials list.

But I’m not here to talk about the coffee - this is an ode to a burger. The food here is a mirror image of the standards - serious, high quality and highly priced. The baked goodies throughout the day are all made in-house, imperfect in shape perhaps but full of taste and fresh fruit. The sandwiches are the norm for modern indie coffee joints - modest in size but not scope.

Now and again a burger breaks out of the humdrum league of pretty good burgers to exalt itself above its countrymen and bask in foodie glory. Currently doing the rounds is the sexy beast from the Cod in Chelsea, once a misguided, underage hangout of mine in the mid 90s. Byron’s Chilli Queen is also darkening the Twitter feeds of our seemingly important but actually rather small sphere of burger nutters. And I'd wager that The Workshop Burger could do the same:

It’s £11.95 which is about market price for a burger of this quality. The bun is brioche, but not overly eggy or sweaty. More glowing like a lady. Importantly, it’s mealy enough to hold everything in place without disintegrating under the tomato dribble. 

The cheese is comté, an absolute favourite of mine but not used so much in burgers. Considering it’s such a perfect melting cheese, it’s a rare choice.

The patty itself is lovely. I was on a work lunch so could only justify one picture sadly! I requested medium but it was gratefully on the pink side of that – nicely charred on the edges. The chipotle mayo added some more smokiness too. 

It's just so damn juicy and flavoursome. And really filling. I find the Byron burgers are over in about five minutes. Chips are ratte potatoes, probably the weak link of the situation but not bad by any means. Some skinny fries would make this superb, as it’s definitely a burger in the neo-trad American approach.

And bonus points for two pickles...

So even if you're not after a coffee, I thoroughly recommend you get yourself down to Clerkenwell Road and feast on this juicy, fat little devil. Wash it down with one of three Kernel or three Meantime beers by the bottle. Perfect.

Food – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 10/10
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (more if you like '94 Seattle)

Friday, 8 June 2012


Such is the freshness and quality of Koya, that I had no regrets heading there just a couple of weeks after I got back from Japan. Misato perhaps might have been a sensory overload too far, but Koya is the real deal. The decor is clean, slick and uncomplicated; perfect modern Japan, and the food is authentic to the extent of the udon being kneaded daily by foot. Even the stocky smells took me back instantly.

The kakuni pork belly (£6.70) in an apple cider glaze doesn't' necessarily sound too Japanese beyond the name, but the subtle soy is redolent through the sweetness, making it the real deal.

A great special was a venison and new-season asparagus salad, about £8. This was intriguing and showed that Koya can be a little bit more adventurous with its specials (more reason to revisit frequently) – and also holds up the Japanese veneration for the seasons and their produce. A fantastic modern dish.

I had curry udon (£9.90), which of course isn’t the most discrete, delicate udon but despite moaning about it the whole time in Japan, I actually never had it because it was ubiquitous enough that I’d order something else, confident I could just get a curry udon any time. But I never did.

The noodles were perfect. Soft, but string with that elastic bite – and the sauce was pure sweet, tangy comfort. How they manage to combine the soup stock with Japanese curry and leave only the tiniest layer of viscosity I’ll never know. This could have been very stodgy and unhealthy tasting, but it wasn’t at all.

The Piglet had tempura scallops (along with the venison rather than noodles) and to form, the batter was light and grease-free and the scallops were hugely flavoursome.

It’s hard to believe Koya is only two years old, as it’s become a mainstay of both the Soho hot spot and the London Japanese food scenes. Service is efficient, prices are about fair and they have all the sake, beer, shochu and plum wine you could ever need.

What a great indulgence it is to be able to briefly transport yourself away to modern Tokyo so easily. Having been, I appreciate it so much more, not that I didn’t love it beforehand. You could convincingly be in a riverside joint in Nakameguro. No wonder all the potentially homesick Japanese clientele seemed perfectly sated and at ease, slurping their cold udon... 

Food – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 8/10
Staff Hotness – 6/10

Koya on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal