Sunday, 29 January 2017

Restaurant review: Uchi, Hackney

The first weekend of the year sans alcohol is depressing enough, without the weather conspiring to make it worse. But the gloom turned up uninvited, raining stair-rods as we Uber’d over to Uchi, for a spot of Japanese.

To lighten the tenebrous days of January, I’ve chosen to do this review in the highbrow format of ‘snog, marry, avoid’ with ‘décor, food and service’ as my three elements.


The food.

The food IS fanciable.

It’s good-looking, sleek, and a sensorial pleasure from first to last.

The stand out dish was the soft shell crab roll.  As substantial as a felled log, perfectly proportioned and delicious. We devoured it, saving the end slices until last, where the ratio of crispy crab completely outguns the rice.

The selection of fish nigiri was a rainbow from scallop to salmon, and our dish of tuna sashimi was velvety and supple. Just like the crab roll, the sashimi was hefty in size and flavour.

We book-ended the fish courses with an earthy seaweed, carrot and tofu salad that had notes of hay and ginger. Kind of like a moreish silage. We also decided to rebel against joyless clean-eating January, with some junk food –a bowlful of piping hot, elegantly seasoned chicken kara-age.


This one’s easy.  I would gladly tie the knot with the interior design and live forever among the bleached woods, copper bar tops, and washed stone of this minimalist paradise.
I would willingly forsake all others for its flickering tea lights and hanging kokedama.  

Uchi’s design creds are not so much wabi-sabi, as the carefully curated perfection of the Goodhood store. But it’s oh-so-pretty.

In look and feel, it’s about as perfect a neighbourhood restaurant as you could imagine.  But décor shouldn’t be the best thing about any restaurant. Unless you’re the Rainforest Café.


Choosing service as my ‘avoid’ is ironic, because avoid is what the staff did to us. All night.

When we arrived, we stood for several minutes before anyone bothered to speak to us. I had to pointedly look at a waitress, who finally gave up her position by the kitchen and came over to us. Now, I know a place like Ushi isn’t going to model its ‘welcome’ on the Harvester, but this level of reluctance was baffling.

During our meal, we asked for more water about halfway through, which never came.

And then, inevitably, we could get nobody to take our money after the meal was finished.
If you’ve spent so long looking at the puddles of soy sauce and leftover ginger on your plates that you choose to leave before they can collect the dishes, then they’ve left it too long.

As we could get no attention, we went up to wait at the desk in order to pay. Whilst our card payment went through, we inadvertently created an awkward barndance as staff carrying stacked crockery had to side-step and do-si-do to get round us.

Uchi - the food might be nonpareil but the service is non-existent. Next time, I think I’ll get takeaway.  

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Restaurant review: Anzu, St James's Market

On its first official night of trading, following a soft launch for a few weeks, the fit-out is immaculate and Anzu is giving off the restaurant equivalent of ‘new car’ smell.

We arrive at 7pm on a Monday night that will prove too cloudy to see the supermoon, for a spot of Japanese to celebrate our anniversary.

Anzu is a new addition to the Tonkotsu stable. It’s pitched as a smart but affordable Japanese brasserie, and it feels like their fight-back to the Shurya chain. The two have much in common in terms of the sleekness of décor and service.

Anzu means apricot, which is a misnomer. It’s nothing like a squidgy, slightly furry fruit.

It’s actually clean, spare, swish. In hues of natural wood and stone.

The food is very nice but rather unchallenging.

To its credit, there’s a generosity of spirit here. That might be a show of opening night goodwill, which may harden and shrink over time. But I found it to be good value.

The Teishoku main courses were substantial.

I had a generous portion of salmon teriyaki. The fish was good quality and deliciously seasoned. Sartre’s seafood katsu consisted of two big pieces of white-fish and a giant prawn, lightly tempura-battered. We each had a big bowl of rice, that I had no hope of finishing, a well-dressed miso soup and some seriously moreish pickles.  Our little pot of green tea was refilled for free, several times.

We saved room for a very pretty apricot and blackberry cheesecake, the tangy fruit offsetting the creaminess perfectly. Despite its perfect presentation, it had a touch of the pre-formed about it. Like something you would get served in Emirates upper class.

Afterwards, as we walked through the cranks and tourists in Leicester Square, we mused on Anzu’s chances of success.

Sartre is convinced it’s a bad site. And that Planet Hollywood as your nearest on-street marker is not a good thing.

He may have a point. The restaurant was quiet – four other tables were in.  But it was a Monday night in that mid November deadzone between bonfire night and Christmas. Often a quiet period, as people tighten their belts before the excess that December wreaks on your wallet and your waistline. 

I’m minded to see what the rest of the St James's Market redevelopment brings. Once finished, it might bring the footfall that Anzu deserves.

We concluded that we hope they do well.  Perhaps partly to assuage our guilt about accidentally smashing an expensive looking soy sauce dish on our way out.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Six things you can learn from a 1980s cookbook

Magimix Cookery, published 1982
Magimix Cookery was a sequel to a 1978 bestseller Magimix and Food Processor Cookery Book. 

Back then, books clearly didn’t need snappy titles to sell in numbers.

Written when food processors were a completely new and revolutionary bit of kitchen tech, the book is a guide to all the things the home cook can do with their new gadget.

Reading it now, it’s an anthology of long-gone dishes, quaint techniques and pointers to what society, and its attitude to food, was like back then.

Here are a few things that stuck out. 


1/ Early 80s home-makers were seriously industrious

This schedule puts that of Maggie Thatcher’s to shame. A call to Gorbachev and a cabinet meeting before lunch? Pah! This woman has made enough cakes to embarrass the W.I. and three different sorts of terrine by then.

And wait til you hear about her pancake handling:

2/ Food photography was unsentimental

In this littoral scene, a grieving family of crabs visit their slaughtered relatives, who are now in the form of crab soup.

On the next page, these kippers and mackerel have beached themselves in order to attend the wake of their shoal-mates, who were turned into smoked fish pate. 

I flick to the Game section expecting the characters from Watership Down to be mourning a rabbit pie.

3/ The food supply chain has changed a lot in 30 years

This entry really shows its age:

I’ll repeat that. She froze leeks in winter, so she could use them in summer.

It says a lot for our understanding of food these days and how far it has become separated from seasonality.  So much for harvesting in season, to eat out of season. 
Now we eat what we want, when we want.

The food miles debate turned up for a bit in the mid nineties and looked like it might return things back to this kitchen -garden idyll. But it proved no match for the forces of globalization. And in any case, in more recent years, the food miles argument has been challenged.


4/ Poussin came served ‘smothered in cottage cheese and butter’

Sounds like a dish out of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, and you’d need the metabolism of a hummingbird to digest it. But this dish was the answer to ‘what to cook for an unexpected supper party’ back then.

Special Abbey trifle? Shrimp n' Hotroot soup? Turnip and Tater Deeper n' Ever Pie? Cottage Cheese & Butter Poussin would have fitted in famously 

5/ Supper parties were never more showy than in the 80s

At dinner parties today, showing off about food is verbal. Just tune into the conversations around the cramped tables at Rok in Shoreditch and you’ll see what I mean.

Have you been to Uchi yet? Is Bellanger the start of the end for Corbin & King?  Will the Clove Club team pull off Italian with their latest foray? Is Sexy Fish ironic good or just bad?

But in the 70s, the food itself did the showing off. Boasting was visible, not audible. Vol au vents. Jugged hare. Curried chicken and ham served in a rice ring.

Those were the days.

 6/ You can build up your cheffy vocabulary 

Agree that showing off about food these days is all talk, but don’t know where to begin?

Simply grab yourself an old recipe book and watch your cheffy vocabulary soar.

This book gives us the following terms that will have your tryabee foodie mates lunging for their Larousse Gastronomique:

A list that would give Fergus Henderson a frisson of excitement.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Restaurant review: The Honours, Edinburgh

You know the bit in The Thick Of It when Glenn Cullen resigns and then rampages round the office, slamming all of his colleagues?

And of special advisor Emma Messinger he says: “You’re just a standard-issue posh bitch. That’s it.”

Well, that’s how I felt about The Honours.

It’s just a standard-issue posh brasserie. That’s it.

Does the job but not very distinctive. An ersatz Corbin & King in a well-heeled part of well-heeled Edinburgh.

The décor is decadent.

The staff are a bit formal.

The food is a bit fussy.

I hate restaurants where you feel you have to stop talking every time a waiter approaches.

It was that kind of place.

The crab served in a martini glass was 90s naff. 

As it was placed before me with hushed importance, I’m almost certain I heard Harry Enfield say, “I am considerably richer than you.” 

This is the restaurant of famed chef Martin Wishart, and I could see that there was good DNA here, deep down.

It’s just a shame they buggered up good ingredients with hackneyed presentation and delusions of grandeur that even the Peaky Blinders would think was a step too far. 

But Jay Rayner loved it. So what do I know? 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Restaurant review: The Sportsman, Whitstable

Eating at the Sportsman is like being invited to dinner by a professor from a John Irving novel, who has a summer house on the shore. (Okay, a professor who has a Michelin star…which might be stretching the plot a little. Even by John Irving’s standards). 

The restaurant is housed in a light, summery old house, perched on a cliff.

The staff, in check shirts and jeans, greet you as if friends.

If you’re on the tasting menu as we were, you’ll arrive with the rest of the 7pm sitting. Ahead of the a la carte diners arriving, it feels a bit like a private party, as everyone bustles through the doors at the same time, removing coats and plunging into drinks and chit-chat at tables.

The restaurant is makeshift and ramshackle – our seats were wicker armchairs with cushions that you sunk into, like cast-offs from a 90s conservatory.

But don’t let the guileless front-of-house fool you. The idiosyncracy is a great bluff of course. Because the food tears out of the kitchen, as low-key as Lady Gaga on Halloween.

It positively demands attention.

Such that you keep breaking off from conversation to utter things like “that is the best oyster I’ve ever tasted” and “that is the Angelina Jolie of attractive plates of food.”

Bread - mostly devoured
Amuse bouche 

The glorious breads of many hues and grains, with bright Seasalter salt crystals in the accompanying butter.

The oysters that arrive on their very own beach of seashells.

The crab, carrot and hollandaise – a reduced crab cocktail in a glass.  A creamy wonder with the taste of the sea shot through it.

The mushroom and celeriac tart, which looked like a dessert and combined the salty tang of the mushrooms with the richness of a raw egg yolk that split and flooded the plate as you sliced into it.  

 The slipsole in seaweed butter - stubbornly simple in presentation and as moreish as it sounds.  

The roast saddle of venison was a well-timed plate of hefty smoky flavour, barging in between the fish dishes and asserting itself.

The bramley apple soufflé with salted caramel ice cream was a tad filling as the finale, but had the desired impact as it arrived at the table, tall and magnificent wearing its coat of icing sugar. 

There’s something about the informality of the surroundings that makes the food seem even more miraculous.  One look at the interesting paintwork in the toilets and you’ll catch my drift. 


The manager did his bit round the tables towards the end of the meal, asking where we came from and what we had enjoyed. He took our praise very modestly - well-used to it I suppose. 

And that's the thing about this restaurant that its many accolades can't really capture. Of course the food is out of this world. But it was the genuine bonhomie, the authentic passion of the whole team for what they're doing here. In this unassuming space down an unassuming lane.