Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Quality Chop House - Farringdon

I have to be a little careful here. Our trip to Quality Chop House was a birthday meal, from me to my girlfriend. Any criticism I deliver, then, surely waters down the present and probably means I owe her something else to make up the difference.

But, I’m nothing if not a hero - and here, I’m going to take a bullet, water down the present slightly, so my audience (hey Mum) doesn’t make the same mistake we did.

Quality Chop House is the sort of small, Dickensian styled restaurant that American tourists fantasise about. It’s all tweed, booths, creaking chairs, dust, and old (empty) bottles of wine. A film set straight out of Dickens’s best work, The Muppet Christmas Carol.

We squeezed in, on a hot evening, next to a really quiet couple who looked seriously, seriously displeased to hear me. Dust blew in the light wind that breezed through the open door, the sounds of traffic and the mating call of drunks carried in from the street, while a clock ticked quietly in the corner.

And God, how it ticked. And ticked. And ticked some more. Counting down the minutes (all ten of them) between us sitting down and ordering a drink - and the further ten between ordering that drink and having it on the table.

Champagne, that was all. The order wasn’t complicated. The order wasn’t unusual (surely). Yet, the waiter told us twice that it was ‘on it’s way’ - Christ only knows how deep their cellars are.

The champagne (it might have been a sparkling wine, actually) was an accident, it said on the menu - discovered when the producer tried to create a different drink. It tasted like one too.

Another accident was the word ‘Chop’ above the restaurant door.

Maybe I have this all wrong, but in my view, a chop house has to major on meat. I mean seriously major on meat.

Mondale to Hart - where’s the beef?

Seriously, where was the beef? Everyone around us seemed to be chomping through some massive t-bone action; the sort of steak that toppled cars 10,000 years ago. It was absent from the menu, though. Not a cut of cow in sight.

We asked and, apparently, QCH has a limited supply - they only order as much as they think they’ll need for the weekend.

This was Friday. At 8pm. At a chop house. How many vegans had they booked in for the weekend? How many people were going to come in and order leek soup? Come on! People want meat! People expect meat, at a chop house. And you’ve run out, at 8pm on a Friday, in central London, a ten minute walk from Smithfield Market - Smithfield, ‘the largest wholesale meat market in the UK’ (thanks Wikipedia).

Not only that, but clearly the chefs are strong with their meat game. The asparagus I had to start was tough, saltless, and boring.

Anyway, with no beef, we went for lamb. Solid, dependable lamb, cooked three ways, served on a big sharing plate, with a couple of sides - and an extra order of potatoes, which they also stored in that deep, dark, cavernous cellar. We tried our best. We chewed slowly. We took deep breathes, big pauses, and talked about the weather. We eked out the meal for as long as we physically could; but, those potatoes had to be eaten, unaccompanied, in place of a dessert.

There’s a few lessons for the restaurant industry here. First, sort your s**t out. It’s Friday night, it’s a popular time for people to eat and spend money, you’re going to busy - bring your A-game; don’t be dithering around, neglecting to take orders, and keeping your champagne and half your menu in the next postcode.

Secondly, get people a drink. Straight away. Demand they have one. Offer them something good from the list. We’re a couple, we’re ever so slightly dressed up and looking a bit tipsy - tip the wine list down our throats; chances are we’ll pay for half of it.

Finally, if you’re a chop house, your menu should rival Noah’s Ark. There should be meat-stacked-upon-meat-stacked-upon-meat - and if you’re buying, cutting, preparing, or whatever on a Friday for the weekend, do double. Last time I checked, meat keeps and sells for more when it does.

Anyway, if you’re in the area, don’t just take my word for it - give Quality Chop House a try; or, walk around the corner to Exmouth Market and the many, many decent restaurants on that street.

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.

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.