Friday, 30 November 2012

Tapped and Packed, Soho

Tapped and Packed are now TAP Coffee, or at least the company name and website are. This stylish coffee outlet which blazed a bit of a trail through both the Rathbone area and Warren Street in terms of good coffee, has now opened a third outlet in the more competitive coffee hub of Soho.

I’m a keen admirer of their clean design, typography and bicycle thematic which gives the brand a quirky yet mature feel. The Antipodean backpackers who beeline from the Piccadilly line to grungy Flat White might feel a little underdressed here. It's not remotely formal, it’s just a rather nice place to be. Yes, nice.

This one features more utilitarian raised as well as regular bench seating, in addition to stools around the coffee bar, now separated from the till. Judgement reserved thus far on that change, but they certainly have the space here. Reading materials and wifi are provided too.

I was downsold a £2 filter coffee from my usual long black order. No doubt so the barista guy could try out some of his bean credentials. But it was actually a tad weak and topped out at about 200ml. Considering I’d asked for a long black previously, he might have assumed I wanted it stronger and shorter. Slightly disappointing.

Food is solid here – there isn’t much beyond pastries, sandwiches and sweet baked goods but they’re high quality and made on premises. My prosciutto, brie, tomato and basil baguette was generously peppered and tasty, not bad value at £3.50. It was a bit weeny, but on the other hand, you’d pay two quid more for the same at Fernandez and Wells, so for the area it’s a good deal.

So TAP Coffee have scored another hit with their most impressive, design-forward space yet. The lighting, furniture and vintage bicycle prints are fantastic. Staff are helpful, although next time I’ll be sticking to my long black rather than that peely wally filter stuff.

At three outlets, the group are now verging towards becoming something bigger, that dirty c word of the foodie world. I’ve been planning a post on what constitutes a chain within coffee for a while. There are a good few other indie favourites with multiple locations who are under the chain scrutiny radar, thus far…

Tapped and Packed on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Sao Paulo

Innovative food, relaxed diners, global variety and adventurous design. This might be Tokyo, London or New York. But Sao Paulo? Surely they only eat steaks, meat buffets and some sushi and bad Italian? Do they even eat?

These were my preconceptions of Sao Paulo before a recent visit, gladly all proven wrong. It is not Rio. The guys wear tieless suits and the girls wear Gucci. This is a city which works, eats, drinks and drives (and together too, sadly), as opposed to preening and playing foot volley on the beach with a beer in hand. More's the pity.

Avenue Paulista emerged as a new CBD for the city when the original one was left to rot. It features a lot of big business and shopping malls, but curiously some rare colonial mansions from Sao Paulo’s original coffee barons, a Bahia-style church and the beautiful Trianon park, which is a mini-rainforest haven in the midst of the chaos. And right opposite the brutalist masterpiece which is the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).

I love brutalist architecture and Sao Paulo has the best on the planet, dramatically juxtaposing with the other unplanned mayhem of the city, such as being retained as the base for the more modern skyscraper below.

Just off the Avenue Paulista is Spot where I had a fantastic dinner. Food is modern European, heavy on the pasta dishes. It’s very much a hotspot and as I came to learn, even the best cooking in Sao Paulo takes a backseat to posing, the scene and the amazing people-watching. The astounding frivolity and superficiality of the crowd is worth the steep prices, and somehow being among them seems less soul-destroying than the equivalent crowd might be in London. Pass it off as cultural curiosity and observation perhaps.

I stayed in the Jardims area which is split between leafy streets of huge mansions (behind even huger razor-wired walls) and the northern part which is a commercial area, full of the swankiest shops, restos and bars in the city. As with Buenos Aires, an apparent lack of heritage planning restrictions has led to some outstanding retail design and construction, with a few similarities to the quieter streets of West Hollywood and Omotesando. 

Ritz in the Jardims is owned by the same people as Spot, and came recommended for its burgers and caipirinhas. Having tried many Brazilian dishes at various lunches, this fully paid-up burger geek wanted to see what Sao Paulo had on that front. The blue cheese burger was deceptively vast; a thick, coarse patty smothered in heady gorgonzola. The bun visually lets it down and immediately brings a Big Mac to mind, but it tasted fine and managed to hold everything together. Ritz itself is well worth a visit – superb staff and drinks and much more on the menu than the burger. It has a McNally look and a very international crowd, but with a distinctly Brazilian pace and vibrancy to it.

I also spent some time in the Vila Madalena area, which again echoed LA and where a lot of Sao Paulo’s nascent ad agencies and production houses are located. It also houses Coffee Lab, a contemporary shrine to the humble bean which would hold its head up in London, Melbourne or Wellington, housing a roastery, indoor café, outdoor space amid tropical plants and a store selling the usual Chemex and Hario goodies. But exclusively for Sao Paulo. At about £3 a pop it’s expensive for Brazil, but for the increasing population of expats and coffee snobs here, this place is clearly a godsend.

Allez Allez in Vila Madalena is a cosy neighbourhood bistro, with impressive period features such as imposing wooden doors and a quintessentially colonial veranda. The peppercorn steak was a lovely tender piece of meat which I was harassed into having despite my protestations about visiting Buenos Aires the following day (Brazilians will argue their meat equals any from Argentina).

Typical Brazilian lunches are not a tragic Pret sarnie at desk affair at all. They are lazy, drawn out and rather debauched affairs which reassured me that the Brazilians will be too busy lunching and chatting to actually take over the world. Our jobs are safe. 

Two hour lunches are not uncommon on any day of the week, and a traditional buffet was a brilliant way to try a little bit of everything. This is different to the churrascarias better known in London (the indoor barbecue where unlimited meat is carved out for you) – here you pay by the weight.

It’d be a terrible place for a vegetarian. There are countless stews of different beasts, fried meat dishes and even this poor piggy:

Brazilian food is decadent, hearty, warm and satisfying, but fundamentally very unhealthy. This is evident around the midriffs of many in Sao Paulo – again, Rio this is not. Even at the classiest places, you will be brought dishes of pão de queijo - pastries filled with cheese (basically Gregg’s) which whoreishly appear as starters, desk snacks, bar snacks, breakfast and any other occasion where artery-damming stodge might be needed. Brazilians are probably buried with these in their coffins.

If deep fried, cheese, meat, salt and butter are key components for you, Brazil is the place. But make sure the treadmill is too. And skip hotel breakfasts for some amazing fruit – here are some ‘plain croissants’ from my hotel, which actually have shredded chicken through them, and some rank sausages floating in oily Heinz soup:

Astor was the most memorable meal of my time there. The place is beautifully decorated, with an amazing bar, art deco touches everywhere and a lively, cosmopolitan crowd. I had picadinho which is a Brazilian greatest hits and frankly more food on one plate than good manners should allow. Quite how anybody can wolf this down and go back to ‘work’ for another five hours is a mystery to me, but they manage in Sao Paulo, the economic, lunching and slumping centre of Latin America. 


It features rice, a separate jug of black beans, farofa (flour with corn and bacon, deep fried of course), deep-fried bananas, a few more pão de queijo in case the starters weren’t enough, and a mound of beef stew, similar to stroganoff. And with a poached egg on top for luck. It’s absolutely delicious obviously, but that and the bountiful sake caipirinhas render you incapable of doing anything afterwards. Welcome to Fridays in Sao Paulo...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Honest Burgers (Soho)

Honest Burgers is much as you would guess, a simple place which knocks out very decent burgers with little fuss. Their Soho outlet is their second after Brixton, and believe it or not, the side street location is rather calm – both in comparison to Brixton Village and also for the environs of Soho itself. It even features some outdoor seating.

There is no booking here of course, so expect a good wait. It’s very popular, as Brixton openings seem to be upon roll-out. There’s a predictable “I preferred their earlier stuff” caché in labouring the Brixton origins (as with Franco Manca), but as I’m from North London (and not the Home Counties via art school), Soho suits me just fine.

My burger (sourced via The Ginger Pig) is cooked medium-rare without the quibble of neighbouring Byron. The patty is high quality, fat and incredibly juicy. Smoked bacon adds a lot of flavour, but the cheese doesn’t dominate too much. Nothing worse than some gastro-pub whacking on masses of Quickes Cheddar or similar to turn a burger into a cheese roll.

The bun is contemporary-default brioche, it comes with pickle and some other bits, and most importantly it comes with chips. Rosemary salt chips in this case, and quite impressive they are too. At £9 (£8 without bacon) for both burger and fries, it stridently competes with Byron at the cheaper end of the quality burger market. 

Drinks range from lemonade in jam jars (retro Mason-style, just to remind you it’s 2011/12) to a decent range of beers including a decent selection from Redchurch. Their pale ale is a faithful rendition of a Pacific Northwest ale, but not so sickly in the floral and hoppy as some can be.

Service was swift, but even with the hordes of disappointed would-be diners ogling our burgers from the cold, we didn’t feel pressured by staff to hurry at all. They take your number and call you, so the queue is managed in a more amenable way than many other places. I hate to invoke the obvious, but it really is an honest proposition; superb burgers executed with understated flair but with fun design touches ranging from great typography to the trivial, such as these cool straws - seemingly on-brand in hunting green. Brighton is to be their third outlet I hear.

In London, and particularly W1, you can’t rest on your burger laurels (or should that be BRGR?) for too long, but it’s my current pick over Tommi’s for top sub-£10 burger in these parts. The rosemary chips, drinks and meat quality swing the balance quite considerably. So go now, if you can get in. 

Drink – 8/10
Service - 9/10
Tap water tales4/10 (none offered or requested)
Staff Hotness7/10
Honest Burgers (Soho) on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

Monday, 19 November 2012

24 Hours in Buenos Aires

Depending on the day, work wavers between being a complete bitch, a tolerable means to an end, or at best, an investment into what bankrolls the other aspects of your life. But occasionally it can deliver the goods. In my case, the opportunity to visit Argentina for a meeting and to spend a day and night in Buenos Aires,

What always drew me in was the crumbling fading colonial and the post-colonial nationalist grandeur and scale of the place; all beautifully weathered mansions and outrageous Soviet-style monuments. Traditions, etiquette and State co-exist with mayhem, anarchy and not a small dose of frontier wildness. And foremost among its appeals are the red meat and the wine.

I deliberately avoided seeing too much of the city, and much to my chagrin I was actually working a fair amount too, so my time was limited to the Palermo Soho area. This area was (lazily) described as a Soho of Buenos Aires, but I found it quite different. It does have many bars and restaurants, but it’s also very heavy on the high-end fashion and design retail which was fun to explore. However it didn’t have the critical mass or workaday feel that Soho’s studios, agencies and offices add to the mix, so it felt a little quiet during the day,

The retail itself was impressive; plenty of imaginatively kitted out stores which seemed to be free of the shackles of planning restrictions and plenty of outdoor dining options. And vertical gardens everywhere. There weren’t many global chains actually, which I imagine could be due to the currency and entry barriers involved (boring) – but this meant the fashion was a little bit more unique than visiting a European or US city, albeit mimicking global trends all the same. 

My epic meal was at La Cabrera, a famous asado place in the neighbourhood. It was absolutely fantastic. Bottle after bottle of red wine slushed down (big thumbs up for Argentine working lunches!) to accompany the most vast range of meat I’ve ever encountered.

The chorizo sausage was outstanding. It is different to Spanish chorizo, closer to a conventional sausage, with less piquancy. The picture is ridiculously phallic, of course. 

This was the only dish served with chimichurri which was a surprise as I thought it was a traditional accompaniment to steak primarily.

We shared it between three, as the sweetbreads, fillet and sirloin (there is another of the same size underneath) came out in a never-ending onslaught of meat. 

I was absolutely debilitated afterwards, but in the best possible way. They also provide countless sides of pickled vegetables, chimichurri fries, tomatoes and salad. We could only face a Chupa Chups for dessert, as we rolled out. Superb meal, and I look forward to returning to try the many other traditional and not so traditional temples to grilled meat one day.

My hotel was the Ultra Boutique Hotel. I’m often suspicious of anywhere which describes itself as a boutique hotel, as any old shithole does these days, but this was very close to the market. The room was huge, with a massive, incredibly comfortable bed and beautiful, stained parquet floors. Bathroom was a metro-tiled New York style, with house-made products. 

The communal areas served as a meeting space and bar for the local area too – although I managed to get a picture of it deserted. Breakfast was a stylish display of bell jars containing fruit, cured meats, cheeses and treats such as brownies. For less than £100 a night, this place was an absolute gem. There is a rooftop pool and courtyard bar also, but the weather wasn’t quite on my side for those.

I forced myself to have dinner although I could barely walk, even six hours later, and another (much smaller) steak at Minga did the job. Plenty more Malbec among the snogging couples (Buenos Aires’ displays of affection are not subtle) and a good steak confirmed all my preconceptions. 24 hours was enough for my tick list of steak and wine, but also to see a whole lot more. 

Design conscious retail, bold street art, independent businesses, lovely service, lush greenery, clear high skies and strange stars, Buenos Aires was a fantastic place to visit, however briefly. I can’t wait to return to explore the rest of the city outside the calm of Palermo, the wine country and the wilderness of Patagonia, itself an outpost of Monterey-style Pinot Noirs.

BA is beside the Rio de la Plata - an endless sea of sludge

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Bone Daddies

There seems to be something of a ramen craze at the moment in London. Anything Japanese is always in favour with hipsters and the high-minded alike, but it’s traditionally been sushi, with flashes of yakitori, katsu and udon fads latterly too.

But with Yo Sushi hailing their ramen with a lack of shame not witnessed since Costa’s Flat White, it’s definitely now a thing. Tonkotsu I’ve reviewed previously, and whilst I enjoyed it to a reasonable degree, it didn’t make a lasting impression with me. It’s become part of some folk’s regular rotation, but I've not returned and personally I much prefer the serenity of Koya.

Which brings me to Bones Daddies, an entirely different proposition. Sure, it’s located in Soho and takes no bookings, but it sets itself apart with a noisy, fun atmosphere some Japanese restaurants lack. Very few blast the AC/DC and Iron Maiden while you’re slurping your ramen, nor do they open past midnight.

Run by an international team of staff, it’s not as rock & roll as it might think it is, but I suppose if grasping for lazy comparables, it’d be the Meat Liquor of the noodle scene. Or maybe a Polpo. I was resisting those comparisons, honest. Just as well I’m not paid for this.

The food itself is very enjoyable. Kara age (£5), much like beef carpaccio, sausage pasta or pistachio ice cream, is one of the dishes I personally find it impossible to move past once I’ve clocked it on the menu. These were fresh, crispy and piping hot. Perfect.

My tantanmen ramen (£9) featured generous crumbs of pork mince in addition to a nice, not too fatty slice of chashu and an amazingly buttery egg. The soup was reassuringly low on the oil slick, and while you aren’t bored to tears with a tale of how sacred Middle White pigs are boiled on a full moon for 28 days in a two hundred year-old pot from Hakata, there is enough meaty flavour to know some meaningful prep has gone into it. Spicy too. Noodles are plentiful and the whole package is filling and great value. 

My friend enjoyed his miso soy ramen (£9), with similar ingredients, but noted (and he has lived in Japan) that something about it felt slightly Westernised or wasn’t that traditional. This is supported by the variety in the menu I would say; there are about ten different types of ramen to choose from. Compare this to the concentrated specialism of the three dishes available around the corner at Tonkotsu, which is much more of a Japanese trait.

But I preferred Bone Daddies. It has identified a gap in the market (and the more measured authenticity of Koya for example, will always have its place) where Soho is crying out for later dining options – not to mention places to easily grab a late beer. Service was a little scatty at times, but it's early days and nothing drastic happened. The food is good, the 80s power ballads are better and the crowd is lively and upbeat. Definitely one for that repertoire. 

Food – 8/10 
Drink – 8/10 
Service - 6/10 
Value – 8/10 
Tap water tales – honestly cannot remember! 
Staff Hotness8/10

Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


Milan has its fair share of visitors, but it’s seldom chosen over Rome, Florence, or Venice for example. However if you find yourself there either for work (most likely) or en route to slopes or lakes, there are quite a few foodie highlights to occupy you.

I actually rather like the place. Maybe because it’s not a dainty ville museé but a thriving, industrious city far too busy getting things done to navel gaze in scenic piazzas. It’s tolerated as a necessary evil by most Italians, I’m guessing as its economic success has kept Rome beautiful.

But among the unlovely office blocks lie preserved tramlines and a network of bar-lined canals, and the shopping is worth the hype, especially in the spheres of design and smaller indie fashion labels.

On the subject of food, as this is Italy every region, town and village has their specialties. It’s one of my favourite things about the country. I think the grandeur of its secondary cities would not exist if they all hadn’t once been capitals in their own right. Compare to France’s rather uninspiring regional centres… although to be fair France’s cuisine is just as federalised even if its smaller cities are dull.

Milan has a few famous food and drink contributions, such as Campari, risotto milanese and vitello milanese. We had a great saffron risotto at the Maio restaurant up in La Rinascente department store. Now that sounds pretty tacky, but it’s actually a decent place with great views of the Duomo and plenty of locals lunching. Gawping at glamorous shoppers and dapper businessmen in sharp suits is a great pastime here. This risotto came without osso buco, but many do.

Osteria Delbinari is a family-run place across the tracks at Porta Genova, with a fantastic dining room and a less exciting garden. However, their veal cutlet is the real deal. Perfectly crumbed and griddled, it's juicy and absolutely massive. You only need a little salad on the side, but their herby parmentier potatoes were outstanding too.

Petit is a more contemporary resto for those who fancy something a little slicker and less traditional. Italian restaurants seem to be perfectly preserved in Milan, whereas the most modern places are sushi joints, so this is quite a find. It’s supposedly with a US twist, but the menu is completely to Italian tastes. The décor is more American-inspired I guess – it could be New York with the pitch darkness mitigated by tea lights (romantic, sweet and yet annoying when trying to read a menu) and with distressed white wood furniture.

Two different selections of antipasto were fantastic. The manual-rolled ham slicer was right behind me so I can vouch for the freshness, and that the smell was quite distracting (in a favourable way) during dinner. The buffalo mozzarella had extraordinary flavour too; richness with hints of both sour and sweet, and far superior to what is mostly found in the UK.

For the main, we shared the beef tagliata for two. This was a bit of a let-down – I would recommend the bistecca alla fiorentina instead. We had slices of fillet steak resting on a bed of salad and charred vegetables, but frankly there wasn’t enough of it. We saw Jedward in there (yes they’re bell-ends in real life), so ‘their people’ obviously think it’s a hot place. But don’t let that put you off, it’s cosy, friendly and wasn’t hard to get a table.

Finally, Milan’s other foodie contribution to Italy and the world: aperitivo. This is the period between roughly 6 and 9pm (including weekends) where many bars up their prices to about €8-10 for any drink, but assemble a buffet for you to lay siege to. Some bars compete to provide the best spreads, but many don’t go far beyond crudités. If you’re near Duomo, Bar Straf at the eponymous hotel is a decent bet.

However, my tip would be if you’re flying back from Malpensa in the evening, to arrive early at Cadorna station, buy your ticket and head to Noon. The cocktails are strong and the buffet is huge, so get your negroni sbagliato in and have a cheap dinner before your flight back.

A fantastic tradition (which is small but burgeoning in London), it explains why Italians don’t get drunk so easily, in contrast with a glimpse of Soho or the City on a Friday after work. You can almost pretend to be all continental and virtuous as you roll out and stagger to the airport train after scoffing three negronis and half a cheese wheel in one hour…almost.