Saturday, 8 April 2017

Social Eating House - Soho, London

This really isn’t a blog, is it? To qualify as a blog, I think you need some degree of regularity in your posts and what are mine? Months apart?

Yeah, the last one was in February, so I’m on for sixth in a month. That’s a pace so far removed from blogging, it’s glacial.

You also need some knowledge on the subject, don’t you? Or - at the very least - a passion for it.

I love food, because it keeps me full (for a short while). I love food, because it’s tasty. And, I love restaurants, because they provide the food. I’m not particularly passionate about them, as an industry. New openings in far-flung East London archways and the latest fad cuisine of an Inuit take on Peruvian street food, I really don’t care for.

So, what you’re only ever reading on this website is an uninformed ramble, by an ill-educated (when it comes to food), passion-less, permanently hungry keyboard jockey, who wouldn’t last five minutes serving tables, frying steaks, cutting up vegetables, or washing up.

Actually, that’s not true. I once washed dishes for 8 months. It felt like prison.

As ever, this is a long winded way of getting to the point - which is this: if you’re a chef, foodie, or a random passerby, someone I know or someone I don’t, please don’t be offended by anything you read here, as what I say carries very little meaning and even less weight.

Anyway, on to Social Eating House.

I have to be a bit careful here. I was taken here for my birthday, didn’t pay a penny towards the meal, and already had a few cocktails before we arrived; so, I’d better be careful what I say.

Hands up if you’ve ever eaten at a chef’s table? Some of you? Yes? Good.

Well, for those who haven’t, it’s simple - you sit in the kitchen, quite near the pass (the bit where the head chef checks the food before it goes out), close enough to see the meat sizzle, feel a little of the stove’s heat, and hear the c-bomb whenever it’s dropped.

And, boy, was it dropped!

Well, twice; but right after I complained (quite loudly) that the chef hadn’t used the c-word yet.

Talk about service!

Social Eating House is one of Jason Atherton’s restaurants. That means it could be excellent, as it was at Pollen Street Social (aside from that awful excuse for a pudding) - or, it could be fairly ‘meh’, at it was at Sosharu; so, I drew a line down the middle and expected it to be good.

And good, it turned out to be. Very good, in fact. Not excellent (that’s a rare score for this skinny Michelin Man wannabe to give); but, a ‘very good’ from me is that kind of score the chef should print out and stick to the fridge with a magnet.

Honestly, he should!

Starting with mackerel and finishing with milk tart, we took in a series of ‘modern European’ dishes of rabbit, sea bass, foie gras, and the like. You know, that sort of English meets French food, all done posh, and served in very small pieces - except for that foie gras.

Man, was that a lot of liver. Too much for me. I find foie gras sickly at the best of times and I was far happier with the root vegetable broth it was floating on. Mmmm...broth. I really am a peasant at heart.

The rabbit, I found disappointing - quite bland in the main, but with the odd burst of a slightly unpleasant flavour I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

The sea bass, on the other hand, was fantastic. If I remember rightly, it sat on mash. Rich, creamy, butter stuffed mash. I really really am a peasant.

To wash this all down was wine - lots of wine and some French pear cider, which seemed to arrive just at my glass was empty. Perfect timing.

And, in a way, that’s the real point of the chef’s table experience. It’s less about the food (although, obviously, that’s still massively important) and more about being treated better than the other customers. You’re not just any old schmuck, but minor royalty for a couple of hours, sitting behind a curtain that says ‘No Entry’ and given a private performance by the entire kitchen staff.

Sure, the rabbit was odd. Okay, the foie gras wasn’t for me. Put all that aside, though, as for two hours this peasant felt way more important than usual - and, better yet, he wasn’t paying a penny.

(Thanks for the birthday present Jaxx)

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Sushi Tetsu - Clerkenwell

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? A while since I’ve trotted out a restaurant review, that I’m not sure many people will take the time to read.

Why it’s been so long, I don’t quite know. Possibly, because I’ve been eating out a lot less lately, possibly because every time I’ve put ‘pen to paper’ I’ve bored myself within the first five lines - and, that’s never a good sign.

Writer’s block, they call it.

Either that or I’m just not cut-out up for this food writing lark.

Regardless, I decided to struggle through for Sushi Tetsu and - at least - try and write something that didn’t send me to sleep. Let me know if it works for you too.

I’ll confess, right now, I’ve never heard of Sushi Tetsu (but, as we know, I’ve never been a well-informed food writer; if I can even be called that at all).

It seems everyone else has, though. And, everyone else also knew the price.

What a price! A £65 minimum spend.

A massive thanks has to go out here to Steph who picked up a fair bit of the tab. I’ll buy the next one, I promise.

The question a price like that raises, in this instance anyway, is how good can sushi really be? Can something that you can now pick up at almost every sandwich shop, for about £6 really be worth 10x that price?

God, if I was any good at this, I would make a case for, a case against, and draw a line somewhere down the middle.

How good can sushi be? Very. Can it ever be worth that much? I guess so, because enough people are prepared to pay for it.

But, the value of food really depends on the situation. The venue, the company, the time, the place, your very own mental state. Not just a cost / taste analysis.

A McDonald’s is pretty good, when it’s cold and crappy outside, your useless football team have lost at home (again), and you’re craving an overdose of dirt cheap fat, sugar, salt, and caffeine. Meet me last Saturday and just try to tell me those things aren’t some of the best life has to offer.

Good sushi - or even great sushi - has a subtle flavour. It’s not going to bowl you over, slap you around the mouth, and announce itself like a hideous, bloated, bald racist on his first day as President.

Nope. It’s going to play gently across your mouth and, if you focus too much on anything else - lights, music, booze, the idiots at the table next to you arguing about the bill - then you’ll miss it.

The culinary equivalent of blinking at the Formula 1.

Sushi Tetsu provides exactly what you need here; the perfect scenario to appreciate the quality of each dish. A cross between a massage parlour (a genuine one, not a seedy one), an upmarket bar, and a phone box, it’s tranquil, it’s quiet, it only has seven seats; and, if one of them is occupied by a total gobsh*te, who spends the whole meal yakking away about his life, opinions, theories, and trips to Morganville, then I imagine it’s pretty damn annoying for everyone else.

Yeah, sorry about that.

So, seven seats. Yep, you heard me right. That’s all Sushi Tetsu has. It’s a phone box of a venue and, if you’re looking to book, you need a fast dialling wand, some dirt on the chef, or a slightly geeky friend who can build you a Twitter based alerting system that texts you when a table is free.

I kid you not.

This really is a thin sliver of a restaurant, where even a medium sized-man has to squeeze sideways between a pillar and a post to make it to the postage stamp of a toilet at the back. Seven seats, arranged along a bar, behind which the diligent, patient, highly professional chef works tirelessly to prepare (what looks like) the best quality fish going and serve it directly to the total opposite staring back at him.

The waiting staff, float between the diners, top up their water, answer their ignorant questions with a patience equal to the chef, and try to tempt another drink down their throats.

Why am I boring you with the layout and a description of the staff’s meticulous nature?

Well, I’m trying to portray the atmosphere, because that’s what this place is really all about. The food is great. I’m sure if you know sushi, you’ll say it’s even better. Served from a plastic tray, accompanied by a tiny folk and a small fish of soy sauce, you might not tell the difference; but, that's not the point (have I made that clear?).

Sushi Tetsu is cosy, yet relaxed. A meditation chamber (I think Steph called it) of a place, the lights, staff, sounds (lack thereof) - except for that loudmouthed idiot (sorry again) - create the perfect tranquil state; where time stops, you feel lightheaded, you’re prepared to trip right over that £65 line, go mad and order the octopus sushi.

Which, they didn’t let me have. Damn them. If I shouldn’t have the octopus, why is it on the menu?

Ah, who cares. Basically, if you don’t know your sushi, be prepared for a few mild embarrassments like that.

We tucked into three sashimi, first; oyster, tuna, and sea bass (I could be wrong), each changed on every bite by the application of more or less wasabi, freshly ground from the fat green root sat on the chef’s table.

The first plate gone in seconds - this meal felt like it would all be gone in a few seconds more (and don't worry, this review won't take much longer).

The sushi, though, is more relaxed. The chef works his way methodologically through the orders. Rolling rice, slicing fish, glazing with soy, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, and serving up each morsel with one word and a bow.

Mesmerising, his hands dancing back and forth across the counter stopped even my conversation. The occasional flame joined the dance and licked intricate patterns across delicate, succulent, seared beef-like tuna.

Finally, the sushi rolls of salmon and tuna were beautifully massaged into shape in front of us and finished as quickly as they were sliced.

And, then we were out. Through the door, complete with 20% more bowing, floating back along the dark alleyways of Clerkenwell.

It was like a massage. It felt like a therapy, with a light touch that left a heavy mark. It seemed like a dream. I wanted a whisky and I wanted to sleep (what’s new). Strangely, all that transfixed staring, that distinct lack of chewing, suddenly felt like it had been hard work, reflected in the wallet and the eyes.

Maybe it was a dream. I half expected to turn back and see the entrance replaced by a different shop, selling forbidden objects and frogurt; but, given how many people have since mentioned the place, I'll conclude that it was real. To be honest, it might as well been a dream, as I doubt I’ll be back - wiring up your mobile to a Twitter feed in the hope of a last minute cancellation just seems like far too much effort for a lazy man.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Friends of Ham - Leeds

How does the pub chain Yates still exist? Of everything that died a death in the last recession, that hideous home of the brown square-toed shoe and flesh-oozing boob tube, should surely have been next against the wall, after Woolworths.

They must have signed a pact with the devil though, because they're so alive and well in Leeds that the street outside is awash with faux leather and flab.

For those who prefer a different kind of meat market on a Saturday night, Friends of Ham is right next door.

A place I've wanted to visit for a long time, House of Ham (as I keep calling it, for some reason) has already been visited by everyone and anyone I can think of, reviewed within an inch of its life and always coming out smelling of pork scented roses.

I literally have nothing new to add, but when's that ever stopped me?

A restaurant-cum-bar, Friends of Ham has that Alpine feel, on a freezing Northern evening, of crisp, cold air on the outside and a room full of sweaty bodies, booze, ham, and cheese on the inside.

That's basically the review right there, in a nutshell.

Ham and cheese, served up on several platters. To not love that, you'd have to be dead inside. The sweaty bodies? That's just a strong indication that it's well loved. I guess, unfortunately, the same holds true for Yates, so it's not the greatest litmus test.

What we ate, I don't really know. Three platters, split six ways, with a salad on the side, and some extra bread - that's what. The specifics can go to hell. I don't pay to read menus (and I still haven't paid for that meal, actually 😬). I pay (when I do) to feel warm, fuzzy, full, and a lot happier than when I arrived.

That's what Friends of Ham delivers. Fulfilment. An excellent wine, washing down the lashings of thinly sliced porky deliciousness, in many shapes (mainly round, to be honest) and thinnesses, accompanied by wedges of great, full-flavoured cheese.

I wish I could say more, I really do. I wish I'd taken some photos, I really do. I wish I had the facility, capacity, or inclination to learn what I dined on, I really do. But, I don't, so you'll have to take my word for it's excellence, with this short, mainly ignorant summary:

Flipping good.

If you're ever in Leeds, visit.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Coco Di Mama - Margaret Street

My dream, if I have one, is to own my own restaurant. Not because it’ll make money (it won’t), not because I have a novel idea for one (I don’t), and not because I want to hang around with celebrity chefs, newspaper food critics, Instagram stars that overuse the word *that*, or Greg Wallace (who does?). I want to own my own restaurant - an Italian restaurant, incidentally - just so I can become that stereotypical old b*stard, who shuffles in every day, sits in the corner, grunts at the staff, and continues to pickle himself in red wine.

I don’t know why. We all have to have dreams, I guess; and, I suppose, if I can afford to do that with my life, I must have done something right.

Sitting there, pondering this dream, as I stared out of the window at Coco Di Mama, on Margaret Street, I suddenly realised I was pretty much there. I don’t own Coco Di Mama, I’m not *that* old, and they don’t serve wine; but, I have become someone who shuffles into the same place every days, sits in the corner, and grunts at the staff. It’s become such a consistent haunt, that the staff not only recognise me, they know my order before I say it and, once, they even asked me for thoughts on their pricing strategy. One day, I’ll walk in to find someone sat in my seat and, no doubt, they’ll kick him out of the chair on my behalf.


All-in-all, being well-known in a place it’s probably less risk than owning it, to both my bank balance and my waistline. But, why do I keep coming back here? Is it the stella food (it is good)? Is it the consistent experience (it is consistent)? Is it the proximity to the office (it is close)? Maybe it’s a yes to all of those; however, I think the real answer lies in the guarantee of escape.

Lunch is that time when, for just a single hour, you can shut your brain off, sit down, send some texts, read a book, and browse the internet. Sure, you might do all these things at work too; but, this is a legitimate time to unwind, when the boss isn’t going to roast you over a fire when you’re found idle.

To properly relax at lunch, escape is key - both mentally and physically. Pret can be too busy, Itsu too confusing, and in Wasabi they make you stand (what is that all about?). In Coco Di Mama, I can sit, quietly, away from people and noise - it’s just safer this way. Plus, they have a bar to rest your feet on under the stools, which means you can take the weight off (now I’m sounding old) and not have to swing your legs like some bubblegum-blowing ten year old.

The fact that the place is empty could be a worry for them. I doubt it. They seem to have a constant flow and, sometimes, a long queue of suited customers, who’ll immediately return to their desk, hunch over their screen, and spray partially chewed food across their keyboard as they laugh as ‘fat woman falls down hole’ on YouTube for the 78th time. Or whatever. Basically, I don’t understand why people eat at their desks. It’s disgusting, uncomfortable, and you don’t get paid for doing it.

So, where are we going with this laughable ‘review’? Oh yeah, the food. Coco Di Mama sell salads, sandwiches, and some other things that sit in the fridge. I’m sure they’ll all lovely; but, they're a totally needless distraction from the delicious, steaming hot pasta, that costs less than £6, and is served in less than 6 seconds, sat steaming away behind the counter. You’re an idiot if you order anything else. I’m sorry to say it, you just are.

The pasta comes with different toppings, which makes it sound like an ice cream, but I’m not quite sure what the correct word is. I always go off menu (I’m just *that* annoying). Half pomodoro, half bolognese. Sometimes, I mix it up with a half of sausage and sage or chicken and chorizo, instead of the bolognese - what can I say? I’m an unpredictable maverick. Always ask for olive oil and always ask for cheese. They come as standard, so why not? Take a seat and, if you’re a loyal customer like me, they even bring it to the table and don’t expect a tip. Boom.

Coco Di Mama have branches across London (mainly in the City).

Postscript: I just remembered that Mark came here and ate a sandwich. He’s not an idiot, so I blame myself for not writing this review sooner or advising him to choose pasta. Sorry Mark.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Annie's Burger Shack - Nottingham

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham menu

An essential part of being a critic is to, occasionally, disagree with popular opinion; to play devil’s advocate; to suggest that things might not be a rosy as they seem. Otherwise, what’s the point?

If I tell you everything you already know, all three of you reading this will grow bored of me pretty quickly.

With that in mind, I turn to Annie’s Burger Shack in Nottingham. Annie’s is an institution, I’m told. A must visit ‘foodie’ hot-spot, nestled amongst an otherwise bleak culinary wasteland - not my words Nottingham, the words of someone who claims to know you well.

With endorsements as good as this ringing in my ears, I’d be a fool to pass up the chance, even if Annie’s does just do a burger - a food, which I’ve very recently said is frequently overhyped and really not worth its near blanket coverage in almost every issue of Timeout.

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham burger and chips

As a restaurant, if you’re only going to offer one dish, you’d better do it well. Aside from a few odds and ends, tucked at the back of the menu, Annie’s does offer up a single dish; but, in a mindbogglingly large multitude of forms. This isn’t just one burger, three burgers, or four: it’s a bible of burgers, featuring every conceivable (and inconceivable) topping, plus a choice of a meat, veggie, or vegan patty. Take a look. The mere sight of the menu sends your eyes spinning; darting across the triptych that covers half the table in front of you, as you pick up words like, and jerk, Yorkshire pudding, peanut butter, and Johnny Vegas.

Yep, that’s right. This is a menu festooned with crazy, dripping with insanity, and oozing with the notion that someone started down a comedic road and never found a place for a u-turn. At the end of this monstrosity you’re just left asking, why?

Perhaps, I’m being unfair here. I didn’t try anything other than the bacon and cheddar burger, so how can I comment? Well, I’ll leave this with you: ‘The Elvis’ - a half-pound burger smothered with peanut butter and raspberry jam. Case closed.

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham side salad

Having struggled to navigate this menu more than once, I stuck with my bacon and cheddar burger - with a meat patty. I asked the waitress what the same burger looked like with a vegan patty (as in, does it still come covered in meat and cheese?). She didn’t know the answer. Let’s just park that one there, shall we?

I also ordered onion rings and a side salad. I’m no Poirot, but I’d wager that the former came straight from the freezer, while the latter was a bowl of shredded lettuce, with a couple of insipid olive slices scattered on top and some tasteless cheese. I wouldn't normally mention side dishes; however, given the menu’s penchant for the bizarre, I hoped for something a little more lively. Anything would have lifted that salad - even some jam.

The burger itself? Well, let’s just say that I’d be impressed, only if this came from a roadside kebab van at 2.00am after I’d washed all taste from my mouth on a cocktail of cheap vodka and budget Red Bull.

Harsh? Yeah, I know. And, if by some freak of the internet, the chef ever reads this, they’ll no doubt be sharpening their knife for my neck - their peanut butter and jam splatted knife, that is.

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham burger

I stand by what I say, though. This burger was awful and, not only that, it cost £10.20, without the sides. The bun was a cheap, pappy sesame seed bun, bought from a local discount supermarket - it had to be. The bacon, again cheap, tough, tasteless, adding nothing other than a stringy bit of fat that pulled the rest of the innards out after it caught in my teeth. You know the sort. The cheese, passed me by. The iceberg lettuce, just added more water to the bacon. And then we have the meat. I just didn’t know what was going on here. There was a hit of paprika (as stated on the menu), fine; but, as Mondale said, where’s the beef? Where’s the hit of meaty-meaty goodness that slaps you around the chops and screams ‘I came from a cow!’. Wherever it was, it wasn’t here. Paprika aside, this was a flavourless burger, with a grainy texture that decomposed between the bun and reminded me only of a £3.00 offering at a deserted dog track. All-in-all, a rank disappointed.

And, I’m sorry Nottingham. I really am. I wanted Annie’s to be everything and more. An American-style diner throwing out classic US grub that rivals anything that we get down in London. It just wasn’t anywhere close. A branch of Byron or Honest would wipe the floor with them.

This review might have a touch of the ‘Flaming Moe’s’ about it, as I scream “you just lost yourself a customer” over the sound of the packed tables, as they order yet more jam slathered meat. As I said at the start, though, I’m not here to agree with everyone. I say it entirely as I taste it - and Annie’s tasted bad.

Let’s just hope the chef can put down the knife - before my blood is added on the menu as another topping - and concentrate on the essentials of what sits between the bun.