Thursday, 3 October 2013

SMITHS (Spitalfields)

SMITHS (capitalised once for correctness, but not to be repeated) is a newly opened spot in Spitalfields. Although it’s not really new, being an effective rebrand of the old LUXE (sic, old naming habits die hard seemingly), to share the branding of its Smithfield sibling. Cheshire high streets, beware! To be honest, I’m not 100% sure on the history or the status of John Torode's involvement (edit: he is no longer involved), but as this is a blog with no sub-editors or unpaid interns, boring facts can wait. It’s basically a reboot.

I liked the old Luxe, it was a well-executed venue with crisp branding and reasonable food and drink. Smiths is largely the same – at street level is a bar, with a restaurant upstairs and some sort of nightlife offering in the basement. Food is strikingly similar; a lot of grills and some random contemporary dishes such as braised short rib. There is some disconcertingly random geography among the starters; salads of green papaya co-exist with those of caprese, and both chicken liver parfait and spring rolls feature too. 

The nuts and bolts of the place are decent. Service is especially lovely (I need to declare here that I was invited to review Smiths, so this could have been a factor) – and the grills were good. But I would not say brilliant. For an establishment known for meat (and John Torode did pitch himself as a beef expert at times) the steak wasn’t amazing. Grill temperature couldn’t have been high enough to deliver a medium-rare piece of meat like the above. It should be bristled with char and burn, not tokenistically striped like a Whopper.

With Hawksmoor up the road and St John opposite, you’d struggle attracting a high-spending clientele here at that calibre. But perhaps that’s a lazy comparison. It seems to be pitched a little lower - more heightened pub food than upmarket steakhouse although to be fair I don’t think they are stating otherwise.

My venison cheese burger was reasonable – a stonkingly dense venison patty, cooked medium and with Cashel blue on top which worked well. The chips were my naughties gastro pub nightmare: massively hot, enormous roast potatoes masquerading as ‘hand-cut chips’. For fuck’s sake, it’s hardly a hard-working artisan paradise cutting a potato three ways. Good whack of salad though.

What else? Well, the cheeseboard was pretty, adorned with celery and some random sprigs of herbs. 

Smiths for some reason left me a little cold, much lesser than the sum of its parts. Everything was of a good standard and the staff were excellent, but I think it was missing an originality, a character or a quirkiness to be memorable. It’s safe, dependable and so straight down the line, that in being inoffensive it renders itself towards forgettable. 

Smiths, Spitalfields on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Grillshack has thankfully replaced the execrable Alphabet Bar on Beak Street, and early signs are positive. First impressions are a slightly baffling array of innovation; no reservations standard but you can sign up for a text when your table is ready. But once you’re in, the options for ordering are overwhelming. Do you download their app and go through that? Or perhaps at the DIY till points? Or yes, there is a counter. Which most people seem to do.

The menu is edited fairly tightly – the burger with add-ons (my newly gluten-free other half is appeased here, but at a 75p surcharge absent from the admittedly higher priced Honest Burgers), a steak, some chicken. Basic yes, and not ground-breaking so far. Although crowd pleasers equate to  crowds and this has certainly been the case on both visits of mine.

Grillshack’s £5-ish burger is my nap here: a juicy, decent sized patty, just pink enough for the purists among us, pretty damn tasty. Bun replete with a light bead of sweat, and bacon proper. 

The steak with shoestring fries is value for the meat alone; a rib-eye supposedly but pulverised into the sort of escalope you might expect in a steak sandwich. No complaints at a £10 price point. Their regular fries have a fantastic seasoning which eclipses the rather lacklustre shoestrings too, which need a touch of sexing up, April Bloomfield style.

But food isn’t the main draw here. It’s serviceable, nay, quite good, but the ease and charm of Grillshack won this pig over. At such great value it’s definitely positioning itself as a Flat Iron, Five Guys and Shake Shack contender, and leaving the higher end of those markets well alone. The key will be repeat business, bolstered by service levels. Which are fantastic by the way; truly attentive and friendly.

Richard Caring’s stewardship of Le Caprice, Soho House Group and others over the years has proven that punters return hungrily again and again for 7/10 food when you give them 9/10 service. As long as it’s decent, great people add the magic finishing touch to make the occasion. Grillshack is a fast food version of that clever approach.

Yes I’m a predictable cynic and Grillshack is an achingly portable concept, probably conceived as such, but so what? Better more of this than some of the rubbish out there now, and nobody would object to W1 service levels radiating outwards, with the food people actually want to eat.

Grillshack on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


Casse-Croûte is a relatively new French bistro, bang in the middle of that strip of foodie escapism, Bermondsey Street. Sure, you can have a very London experience in either of the opposing boozers, but Jose and Pizarro can whisk you away to Madrid, Village East to New York and Zucca to Milan. Although I always find Zucca has a New York feel too. And Village East is getting a long overdue refurb, so who knows.
But anyway, the point remains that Bermondsey Street is like being on holiday. A sophisticated, epicurean update of the pulling holiday’s ubiquitous ‘bar street’, only it’s for people with slightly more money and slightly less flesh on show. Slightly. And ironically, more actual Europeans than the Brit-infested resorts.

Casse-Croûte (might as well persist with the accent) is the cookie-cutter charming neighbourhood place of your dreams, to a fault. It vaguely reminded me of The Little Owl in that regard. The welcome and exuberance are en francais, but they were far warmer than any I’ve received in France. And yes, that includes outside of Paris.

Food? Well, we ate an awful lot. Before the starters, charcuterie sliced to order mere inches from our heads accompanied a crisp cremant. A nice menu touch, as too often (even in French places) the non-champagne option is prosecco – not to be sniffed at of course, but some beautiful fizz comes from The Loire too.

To start, a garlicky sausage and onion jam laden brioche (a posh sausage roll and no less for it). Excellent. As for the others’ dishes, to be honest I can’t actually remember as we were already rolling in the aisles.

Blame the handsome staff for turning our table of gals and gays a tad bawdy (the raging horn, in fact) or that seductively thirsty combination of food, open windows and a warm summer night – but we had a very good time.

On to mains, a huge, beautiful platter of roast lamb was shared. I had a pork dish I wasn’t familiar with but it was a massive, house-made sausage in a rich broth of cannellini beans and vegetables.

So, sausage rolls and then sausage and beans. Very cosmopolitan, me.

I can barely remember leaving, but we did share amongst other things an amazing strawberry and pistachio tart. One wine followed the other as we glugged from Loire to Rhone, and they were all delicious.

I absolutely loved Casse-Croûte. The only issue with its quality, vibes and ever-changing menu is that my every attempt to return has failed miserably. One for the little black book yes, but the secret’s out.

Casse Croute on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Flesh & Buns

Flesh & Buns has managed to pull off that rare miracle in London's food scene; originality. 

It is a hotchpotch of Japanese dishes, with Korean and Chinese elements lurking around, but to call it an izakaya would be completely missing the point. It’s not an izakaya, in the same way that The Ivy is not a pub, even though they both serve safe, generalist classics such as Shepherd’s Pie.

In addition to the meat + buns main event, their offering ranges from sushi to yakitori, with plenty in between. Our chicken yakitori was sweet, faintly pink and absolutely charred to Tokyo yokocho perfection, but without the fag fumes. The fried squid, which at best I am ambivalent to, was zingy, light and lacked any rubbery texture at all. A first for me. 

Beef tataki was vinegary, tangy and frankly divine:

But on to the buns. The idea is to order from a range of predominantly meat dishes which come with hirata buns (similar to the bleached-white char sui dim sum buns but in halves) to fill. Cucumber and hoi sin-esque dipping sauces feature heavily, and so it’s fair to equate this with something in between the rituals of Peking duck and making your own sarnies. 

Many meals fundamentally boil down to DIY sandwich-making (observe us Brits in a tapas place) and so I have no doubts about its enduring popularity here.

Both of our dishes were fantastic. Top marks went to the Flat Iron steak – exquisitely cooked and sliced. The pork belly with mustard miso was also excellent, and a much bigger portion. 

The venue itself is long, open and woody – not hugely different to Wagamama I’m afraid, but I’m unsure how else to have done it differently, and it works. I remember this as some sort of dreadful pre-craft, Belgian-style microbrewery which itself was a MASH rip off.

Service was super keen and friendly. My date, the inimitable Grace Dent, kept to her inimitable punctuality and although I only waited about 15 minutes and was more than happy guzzling my Asahi, the Japanese waitress sweetly and sympathetically asked me if I wanted to order, but now for one. I’ve never been stood up in such a manner, but having experienced a taste of the accompanying pity, it’s not a morale booster…

I absolutely loved the food here. Charred, sweet, smokey and meaty. Meat. Carb. Sauce. All you ever really need.

In these heady days of opening-chasing, endless soft launches, 'pop-up pop-ups' and the perpetual hunt for the next thing, I can safely utter some endangered words in London’s 2013 food scene: “I will actually come back here.”  

Flesh and Buns on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Soho Diner

Soho Diner is the new incarnation of Bar Boheme, previously a weak point in the otherwise faultless repertoire of the Soho House gang, although to be fair it was very of its time. But times move on, and in place of mojitos we have negronis on tap (startlingly potent) and instead of a cocktail stick poking into the burger, it is speared by a massive knife. Yup.

I only tried two dishes which were some ham and cheese fingers and the burger. The fingers were a toastie cut into strips with pointless dip. Fine if you’re after such a thing, but frankly it’s a bit shit.

I love a toastie, but I don't come to Soho for one. Well, I did as you see below. But the fried chicken was sold out and I didn't know it would be so basic. Fool me once...

The burger was a surprise; as well as the steak knife, the ‘single’ came with two patties and were cooked Dirty Burger style, that is to say, medium-well but still moist. But in a steamed way, rather than richly juicy. Good value, but better to be had nearby.

These guys show continually fantastic judgement, from their clubs to the restaurants and the touches consistent across their diverse portfolio, there is a real sixth sense for what the market needs and an extremely delicate balance between the informal, the exclusive and the business friendly.

The real appeal here is the location and licensing – it’s open until 3am on weekends so you can grab a passable burger, some more rocket fuel and engage in what is still some of the best people-watching in London.

Soho Diner on Urbanspoon

Friday, 5 July 2013

Shake Shack, London

Food commentators on Twitter, the London press and even some of my previously oblivious, nonchalant mates had remarked that London’s burger mania had peaked and become dull. Even my Mum is aware of the craze. But this week’s opening of US transplants Shake Shack and Five Guys surely marks the crescendo.

As the debates rage on the limits of queuing, on London’s colonisation by US chains and thirdly on whether the humble burger itself merits all of this attention, it can be difficult to maintain a stance. The ‘to each their own’ mantra so universally appropriate has to be the way forward here.

Personally I wouldn’t like to queue 2 hours for a burger, but if someone does, that’s fine. I wouldn’t sleep rough for a new iPhone either, but I did wait 45 minutes at Frank’s for a lukewarm, assembly line Negroni which I could have bettered for free in my suntrap garden around the corner. So I’m a mug too… or, we’ve all got our weaknesses.

Is London becoming the 51st State in regards to openings? Well, perhaps. We have Balthazar now, and in retail, J Crew and Williams Sonoma are following Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch and many more before them. Nothing new there though. 

I doubt anyone would rather the repulsive Quick of France, or Pans & Co of Spain, and we should be pleased about the employment and investment created. Frankly, heightened service levels might cross the pond too. I’d much rather a Japanese invasion of fashion and food, but that’s another story.

But the burger itself should surely be the main issue. Is it worthy enough of all this hype? Is it just meat within two slices of bread? Yes, of course. But therefore a steak is just grilled meat and sashimi is just sliced fish? Anything can be disseminated for ridicule. If somebody values something to queue for a certain period or pay £15, then that is its value. Simple.

But Shake Shack itself? From the preview: a bit disappointing. They’ve made a huge effort, the team are fantastic and I wish the venture well – but the Smoke Stack burger (with cheese, bacon, peppers and a cloying mayo-based sauce) lacked much depth in flavour. The Aberdeen Angus patties were greyish inside, underseasoned and underwhelming. 

Top marks for the cheesy crinkle cut fries, and the shakes themselves. Kernel beer is decent but I hope they end up collborating with a London brewery here, as with Brooklyn’s Shackmeister. 

Curiously, the Cumberland sausage hot dog was the stand-out dish for me. Rich, gamey flavours and the crispy shallots were a perfect accompaniment and substitution for the usual bog-standard onions. With more of that cheese sauce. Fantastic, and probably the one reason I’d return.

I’ve eaten in Shake Shack in New York, and enjoyed it. The branding is superb and the staff great, but the actual food isn’t memorable on its own merits. It’s not as good as Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien. Or Fanelli’s. Or countless other more affordable burgers in New York.

Let’s be truthful here: that positive Shake Shack NY impression becomes amplified when back home and amalgamated into the joys and vibrancy of a New York visit overall. The superlatives come out, the power of nostalgia becomes inscrutable, the positive memories indelible. But we in London have been busy, and this isn’t a patch on Honest Burgers or Tommi’s.

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Crooked Well

Amble down from the madness of Denmark Hill station towards Camberwell and you might double take at your surroundings. The grandeur of Camberwell Grove, faded in parts, undimmed in others, is well-known, but parallel Grove Lane is more of a hidden gem. 

And believe me, having recently made the pilgrimage down to SE5 (responsible for your humble correspondent's brief hiatus), I ensure every single visitor witnesses it, hopefully distracted from the lively folk of the Maudsley, just behind.

That rarest of London phenomena; a pristine, un-Blitzed terrace of Georgian houses with a comfortable ten metres of croquet-ready lawn frontage, it should by rights be somewhere far more salubrious. By the same logic, so too should The Crooked Well, a relaxed yet upscale pub dining room – but they both seem to fit in just fine.

The term gastropub doesn’t mean anything much in 2013, and it’s lazy at best. In fact it’s odious. But I’m sure it would be bandied about here; ostensibly just a pub where dining comes before boozing. Perfectly ok here, as there are plenty of nearby boozers and often the contrast of ‘finer’ dining and quality service in pubby environs makes for a more relaxed experience. 

From The Oak in Notting Hill to Fulham's  Harewood Arms, it's evident that the exoskeleton of a pub can reassure many who'd sweat profusely in a stuffier venue about cutlery etiquette or how to react when that sign of quality, the metal crumb scraper comes out. Clue: it's less awkward than lazing around the house while the cleaner is grafting away. 

Food is modern British, not wildly adventurous but definitely a step up from a tarted up pub menu. There are three dishes for two to share; a fish pie, a Côte de Boeuf and the masterful rabbit & bacon pie. And yes, it really requires two people.

Other highlights included picanha steak, pata negra, a cocktail of the day with charitable donation and a list of strictly French apertifs, unique in eschewing those ubiquitous red and orange bitters of Milan. The cheeseboard is impressive too.

I’m trying to resist being too effusive, but it’s just really rather good here. Service is attentive and well-informed but laid back, warm bread is offered more than once, and the chips are bloody excellent. There is little more satisfying than well-executed simplicity, and The Crooked Well balances its uncomplicated quality with a hint of refinement to work for most occasions. Except perhaps a raucous knees-up.

Crucially both the (briefly) idyllic setting and the pub itself are absolutley perfect for that South East London parental charm offensive, when they’re wondering what on earth possessed you to move here. Cue astonishment and relief as they walk through the door; places like this are exactly why I won’t be going anywhere for a long time.

 Crooked Well on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Delaunay

Hard to believe as it is, April saw my first ever visit to The Delaunay. This less formal, warmer incarnation of The Wolseley, with its power breakfasts, Middle European afternoon tea and good-time crowd seems already to be an institution. Going by my Twitter timeline, it’s now as established as any West End stalwart. I've even recommended and referenced it to people as somewhere to take parents, mindlessly oblivious the irony that I hadn’t been myself.

And it’s great. It has all the elements required to add a little grandeur to a restaurant visit. The entrance is grand and instils a slight specialness to your arrival. Staff are exceptionally polite, well-groomed and as they take your coat and guide you to the bar area for a some cold and fizzy, your socks are already charmed off.

Food is really very decent. There is nothing adventurous on the menu, but that isn’t why you would dine here. The weekend brunch menu ranges from breakfast staples to steaks, running through salads, fish dishes, the odd burger and hot dog, and those Austro-Hungarian specialities you might know from The Wolseley.

Hungover as I am wont to be on a Saturday, the chicken noodle soup was beyond what the doctor ordered, beyond even junior doctors’ own saline drip remedy perhaps. A piping hot clear broth, with strong chicken flavour came with a decent amount of shredded chicken, the noodles and some veg (carrots, celery?) to add further taste. Simple and fantastic.

Revived, prosecco-ed up and feeling much better about life in general, my hungover choice of Chicken Cordon Bleu was still a solid decision. A bit of retro fun, but executed perfectly. A huge, juicy chicken breast was flawlessly breaded and filled with a layer of ham and cheese oozing out. It rested in a ridiculously tasty jus and the whole dish was an absolute pleasure to eat, with a twist of nostalgia. Surely there is nothing better than a fancy ‘kids’ tea’? The place that does grown-up waffles and beans next has my vote. 


Dessert options are compendious and faced with the choice of a Viennese grand café, I retreated into my ignorant shell and plumped for the obvious apple strudel with vanilla ice cream. It was crunchy, soft, warming and above any criticism. I’m a simple man with relatively simple tastes though: much like pancetta/bacon and savoury dishes, there are very few desserts a cheeky scoop of vanilla won’t enhance. Or compensate for. But this was inscrutable.

I don’t have anything further to add on The Delaunay. As I mentioned, bizarrely, it snuck into my repertoire and I spoke of it with familiarity and affection long before I’d been. Which is so odd. But I guess is a testimony to how consistent the reception has been that a dependable consensus seems to have infiltrated my consciousness.  

Queuing for burgers and eating street food on the pavement has its moments, but call me a traditionalist; this is how restaurants should be. Simplicity, atmosphere, timelessly contemporary, reliable and with a sense of occasion. It smacks of longevity already. 

Service - 9/10 
Tap water tales6/10 (nominal-charged filter option pushed, but tap available) 
Staff Hotness9/10

The Delaunay on Urbanspoon