Thursday, 31 January 2013


Such a tonic it is to have a meal in a normal restaurant, and I didn’t realise how long it had been after a good year of burgers, pop-ups, small plates, single-item menus, wine tumblers and a lot of queuing. 

Remember when you booked a table at a certain time, arrived at that time and somebody took your coats, and offered you some fizz and you were then seated at an empty, set table? Bread and real menus follow (which are NOT placemats) and food is served to you all simultaneously and in courses?

Yep it seems so odd that in a new-ish place is offering what could depressingly now be seen as a traditional approach, outside of the stratospheric bubble of fine dining. Step forward Verru, a curious mix of Scandinavian and Nordic food, prepared with French techniques and served with bold colour.

At the top of burgeoning Marylebone Lane, it’s a tiny place with little ambient noise save the clink of cutlery on porcelain and self-consciously hushed conversation. An inescapably conspicuous arrival jars a bit, but it soon dissipates as you slump into comfy seats, and fresh bread and booze arrive.

Yellow pea soup with a topping of crunchy goose was a fantastic start. The soup was rich and deep in flavour and the goose did the job of posh bacon bits admirably.

A tick list Scandi starter of meatballs on mash with carrot puree was rich and creamy – the crumbly, homemade meatballs providing a bit of texture to the smooth accompaniments. Correctly made, you can discern the different meats involved, including veal which is a must.

The other starters were herring and mackerel, neither being my favourite fish so I must come clean and admit I didn’t taste them. But feedback was lofty indeed – the herring was surrounded by fantastical mushrooms and presented in an on-trend “oh look what I just casually scattered” forage-y style. 

Mackerel was also entangled in a forest of Thor only knows what, and with a brick of caramelised ham hock for good measure.

Onto the mains – lamb rump with homemade lamb sausage (so close to that Masterchef chestnut of ‘X three ways’) with a slightly spicy chutney, chickpeas and red pepper. Very good dish, although the lamb sausage had a very high meat content and did almost get the better of me.

Halibut with pork belly was another star. Perfectly cooked and presented.

And finally, the venison. Again, beautifully presented and cooked with the obligatory red sauce and a smidgen of potato. There is some real care and attention in the kitchen at Verru and it shows.

Prices were £7-10 for starters and £16-20 for mains, but there was also a cheaper set menu including a steak option for £16 including a glass of wine. We had a sneaky side order of chips which were triple cooked and excellent – but definitely needed.

I liked Verru a lot and would recommend it to anyone. It isn’t the buzziest scene you’ll encounter in 2013, but go for exquisite presentation (provided you like a good pea swirl), thoughtful flavour combinations and attentive service.

Riotous booze-ups should probably go elsewhere – ruling out my friends certainly – but it’s a discreet, relaxed and for 2013, defiantly old-school option for a culinary twist on a date or the parental meal out. 

Service - 8/10 
Value – 7/10 
Tap water tales5/10 (not offered but once established, topped up a lot with ice) 
Staff Hotness6/10

Verru on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Aperitivo at Il Tempo

The origins of aperitivo are hotly debated; the vermouth influenced aperitifs themselves seem to have started with Turin’s Cinzano empire, but the culture and practice of today seems to be a Milanese adaptation. Either way, who cares, it’s from up that way.

We Brits can certainly learn a lot from the characteristics of Italian eating and drinking which aperitivo espouses:

That is is better to drink in moderation (prices are often doubled) and always with food, to not only slow your drinking speed down but also to reduce the effects of the booze itself.  And that you should socialise and network with friends and colleagues after work, but also return home at a decent time to your family (sober-ish) for dinner. 

Then again, at age 25  (let alone 30) we aspire to have moved out, so La Dolce Vita isn't quite as enviable. Supposedly some old-school mammas in Italy complain it spoils their kids’ appetites, but among the many possible booze-related grumbles, it’s not so terrible. Skip the starters and have a quick nip yourself Mamma...

And so, onwards to Il Tempo, a bar on Chandos Place, very discreet to the point of almost missing it despite having walked past one hundred times. There are scattered aperitivo options in London, but despite some optimistic predictions the craze hasn’t quite skyrocketed as thought. It certainly is more spoken of, but there is some way to go yet.

Aperitivo is not great here.  Firstly, there was no red vermouth which meant no negronis or americanos; a heinous crime worthy of Mussolini-style hanging in Milan I’d wager. And secondly, the selection of food on offer was pitiful. Beyond some postage stamp-sized morsels of peppers with a bland breadcrumb topping, dry crackers and the odd olive, there was nothing. I didn’t have the heart to photograph it as they’d have known quite obviously it was for scorn and shame value.

There were upsides to this mature and cosy place. Our Campari spritzes were huge, and the wine list looked impressive. We ordered a mixed platter from the menu which was fantastic; beautifully fragrant finocchiona, silky San Daniele and even better spicy and regular pecorinos, and huge parmesan chunks. For £22 this was a great sharing dish. 

Notably, most punters had ordered food off the menu and ignored the aperitivo, and we exchanged some wistful, embarrassed looks about the sad selection on the bar. They curiously have a gnocchi selection too – our wild boar ragu was barely discernable and the two flecks of mince topping were not worth the £8 at all. Avoid.

short changed on the cinghiale

So the hunt for London’s aperitivo continues. Do not expect anything close to Milan’s best at Il Tempo – that generosity of spirit has not crossed the Alps just yet. The drinks are elevated to £10 but without any of the treats this surcharge should accompany.

The bar itself is reasonable, the staff chirpy and it’s worth a drink and snack if you can’t get into Terroirs perhaps, but I would draw the line there. My Milan write-up not so long back suggests where to find the best aperitivo and exactly how it should be… come on London!

Il Tempo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Coffee in Birmingham

Now, no doubt it’s not something on everybody’s mind, but for the occasional visitor and about a million residents, the existence of good coffee in Birmingham is an important thing. There is some brilliant Asian food of course, both from the subcontinent and within the surprisingly respectable Chinatown, but has contemporary coffee culture blazed a trail through this low-key city of concrete monoliths?

A tentative ‘yes’ is the short answer, and the best for me was 6/8 Kafé. Located in the north of the city centre (like much of the better stuff, I noticed) it skims the shoppers’ precinct to benefit from footfall, as well as from those in the know.

My long black was fantastic – not too hot, strong, slightly viscous and with a great crème. Beans were courtesy of Has Bean, which of late has been breaking up the Monmouth/Climpson/Square Mile cartel quite vigorously. The interior is comfy enough, with lots of wifi ponces making the most of it, but space is at a premium. Perhaps the sign proclaiming it among the UK’s 50 best indie coffee shops is really pulling them in. Overall, a great little place you’d be chuffed to have nearby.

 Six Eight Kafé on Urbanspoon

Onwards to Urban Coffee, another outlet a little further towards the Jewellery Quarter which seems to have proliferated in Brum with a few outlets dotted about. This place has a characterful mural, a beautiful antique steampunk espresso machine and plenty of seating. Food selection is very limited however (breakfast offers toast or porridge, on weekends!) which was a shame as it’s easily large enough and the niche is there for a modern, cosmopolitan brunch menu.

My Americano here was a bit heavy on the volume and thus not strong enough. Perhaps my fault for not ordering a long black – in the best of coffee shops, they will execute different coffees on this distinction. Get it on the board, guys.

Urban Coffee Company on Urbanspoon

And so in pursuit of brunch, we found ourselves next door at Home. This is a deli-cum-farm shop vibe, with lots of twee decorations and crates of fruit and veg. Decent coffee though (Urban’s Americano left this hungover pig with a hankering for more caffeine) and the bacon roll was spot on.

Home Deli on Urbanspoon

Alas still no eggs benny or pancakes to be found on my wanderings, Birmingham…so where is the good stuff? While there is definite scope to avoid the chains and get decent coffee in this city formerly known as second, there is still a lot more potential.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Bar Tozino

With neither a brioche bun or chashu slice in sight, Bar Tozino has burst onto the Maltby Street scene with huge success. Upon my visit at Saturday lunchtime it was absolutely rammed, with many more retreating upon peeking through the door, defeated and crestfallen. For the lucky ones, a real treat awaits.

Cava at a mere £4 a glass was light, fruity and yet complex, tasting closer to a prosecco and unlike many rough, astringent cavas I’ve had over the years. The food, as becomes immediately apparent when looking around you (here meat is indeed curtains) is focused on the exalted jamon iberico.

Cured ham hasn’t been a luxury ingredient in the UK for many a year, and having been wrapped around countless melons, sitting within limp paninis or adorning overpriced pizzas drowning in rocket, isn’t as excited as perhaps it once was. But as a luxury foodstuff, the Spanish have elevated the best legs to a crazy premium and prices of the best iberico can be outrageous.

Bar Tozino succeeds in enabling the best to be affordable and accessible. The menu features a selection of four hams ranging between £5-15 for a small plate, with sourdough con tomate. We had the Huelva bellota (which means acorn-fed, the best) and it was smooth, deep and frankly beautiful. You know it’s special when you’re even craving just the silky fat.

There are a few obvious menu bedfellows to the ham, such as some absolutely delicious acorn-fed chorizo (£5) and cheeses such as manchego or more pan con tomate, but there is also the odd surprise, such as the delicate egg atop bread and a ham and chorizo mix, served in a tapa bowl.

The interior is dark and sultry (or dingy if you don’t like railway arches) but it’s a superb use of the space, especially for the functional hanging of many ham legs overhead. There is a deli counter and separate menu for ‘take away’ which reminded me of the ham ‘bar’ at Iberico on Great Portland Street.

The vibe is pretty riotous – this is not a place for the shy and retiring. It’s loud, crowded and fairly uncomfortable (three types of stools ensure an inconsistent level of comfort – avoid the tiny ones) with staff clamouring to fit through the crowds and deliver the coveted boards and drinks.

Bar Tozino was fantastic, and possibly a victim of its own early success. I was told that later in the afternoon (once most of Maltby/Ropewalk has died down) it’s a lot more relaxed and people settle down for a good ham and booze session, rather than the flighty visit we had. 

I’ll be back again and again – the food was unadulterated pleasure, the booze great and you can easily imagine being in somewhere in Barcelona's Born or Raval districts. I'm extremely grateful for something unique on 2012-13 London’s bandwagon-y, predictable foodie landscape. Not to mention adding to quite an already impressive Mediterranean cluster of Zucca, Jose, Pizarro and Antico.

Here’s hoping for more openings in 2013 with as much originality, authenticity and flair.

Bar Tozino on Urbanspoon

Friday, 11 January 2013

San Francisco

San Francisco must be one of the most stereotypically ‘foodie wanker’ cities going. In fact, I’d say the most. It’s a hipster hub, both spiritual and corporate home of tech, blogging and Apple in particular, and localism and organic produce are infuriatingly revered.

The only points I’d say New York scores are due to both its critical mass (although per head comparisons would be interesting) and that innate impatience with anything old, ensuring a blinkingly turnover of premises and a labourious obsession with where's 'hot'.

You’ll need a coffee to perk you up after what is likely to be a long flight. Blue Bottle is San Francisco’s Monmouth or Square Mile. They have plenty of outlets around the Bay Area, but if you’re after a cultural fix too, the excellent SF MOMA sports its own, complete with Mondrian cake and an interesting rooftop sculpture garden.

 Blue Bottle Coffee on Urbanspoon

If in the Mission, try Ritual, the other major SF roastery. I found it smoother than Blue Bottle and a bit less stiff. This place has a ridiculous hipster quotient. Don’t you dare bring in a PC laptop. Or arrive clean-shaven! 

Check the amount of shiny Apple lights coming from these antisocial, unemployed, uniform drones:

  Ritual Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

As mentioned, San Franciscans are obsessive about produce, which isn’t surprising given the climate and soil of the surrounding country. Superlative fruit, vegetables and wine are everywhere – out of state is anathema, let alone imported. Even the crummiest corner deli has a robust craft beer selection (I’m not sure we can count Sam Adams, Sierra or Brooklyn any more) to make a London 'specialist' weep.

America means burgers, right? Even with a hugely diverse population especially heavy on both Asian and Latino cultures, there are countless diners, traditional restaurants and deceptively divey looking bars slinging good burgers.

Jasper’s Taproom offered fantastic spiced cotechini and other bar treats, but this SF Gate Top 50-rated burger was a bit of a let-down. The bun was inexplicably an over-salted focaccia and not the freshest either. You can’t hide this even with a drizzle of oil people, focaccia hardens up in minutes rather than hours! Combined with a forgettable patty – don’t bother. 

 Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen on Urbanspoon

My vote for Bay Area burger goes to the brilliant Plum Bar in OaklandActually (yes, I know, but it’s like their Brooklyn, honest!) but I’ll cover those badlands in another post.

The Nob Hill Grille is up there with my favourite brunch places on Earth. The location is great for the hotels, and the hills provide a brilliant way of walking off the impending feast. My chicken and waffles was absolutely sublime and one of my most memorable breakfasts ever. Only in an American morning would this be considered a thing of decency:

The chicken was deep-fried to absolute crunchy perfection, with a hint of paprika giving some spice. And two huge pieces meant I was sorted all day. The Piglet’s corned beef hash with poached eggs was also enormous. Sit at the bar and watch it all masterfully unfold.

  Nob Hill Grille on Urbanspoon

Hayes Valley is one of my favourite areas in the city to wander around – it’s pedestrian friendly and Hayes Street is an attractive strip of many indie fashion, home and coffee places. A good amount of the shopping is for guys too. When you tire of big department stores, cabbing it between places and dodging piss-sodden bums around Union Square, it's just the tonic. 

Arlequin was our sarnie stop-off here. Brilliant coffees and beers, solid food (meatball sub and spinach and basil pesto grilled cheese) and next door is an excellent wine bar and store.

 Arlequin on Urbanspoon

As SF’s hipsterdom epicentre, the Mission hosts some very good dining and boozing options. Mission Cheese I’ve conferred its own glory here, and there are plenty more in another stretch which is walkable and has enough variety to explore. But the area is traditionally (and still is, especially along Mission St rather than more swanky Valencia) the Mexican and Central American hub of the city.

Taqueria Cancun will sling you three massive tacos overflowing with tender carnitas, cheese, beans and other mush. Superb, especially when taken into Knockout next door (who have no kitchen but the best margaritas) – and all for about $7. Note that black beans in the US are often blended into a baby food consistency…I prefer the bite of a discernible bean but to each gringo, their own.

 Taqueria Cancun on Urbanspoon

Finally, some fancier contemporary food. We ate in an endless procession of worthy and affordable restos  (I would also recommend SPQR, Delfina, Foreign Cinema and Hayes Street Grill) but on this visit, Nopa was my stand-out. 

The menu is contemporary Californian, which is to say that it uses all the local hotshot ingredients (seriously SF, get over the heirloom tomatoes) but primarily in Italian guises and reinventions. There is a wannabe Italian thing going on in California, hence the revolting ‘Tuscan-style’ villas the rich erect, but the climate does lend itself to replicating the food very well. 

Wood-baked butter beans with a breadcrumb and pesto crust was innovative and damn good. Flat bread slices with ham hock, greens and tons of parmesan was a great sharing starter. But why not call it a pizza bianca?

Duck leg with seasonal greens and potatoes had an incredibly sweet and yet mellow jus just beneath the spiced, crispy skin. House-made pappardelle with a humble tomato and spinach sauce was perfect simplicity. 

 Nopa on Urbanspoon

Spinach was no doubt in season on our visit, as it was ubiquitous on menus and specials lists. San Franciscans are a demanding, discerning lot, and with such competition and high standards, it has created one of the best dining scenes on the planet. And I haven’t even touched the surface of the incredible Asian food available…