Sunday, 24 November 2013

Restaurant review: Katz's Deli, NYC

Behold, salute and stand in awe of the justifiably legendary Katz's Deli. 

We ventured here partly due to When Harry Met Sally. This is the diner where she fakes it for Billy Crystal.  In fact, that famous piece of film history is marked with a sign above the table where it was filmed. 

Before you've even got to the eating, it's an evocative experience. It's bustly, neon-bright and as full of locals as it is tourists. They also don't suffer fools gladly. Being 'new to all this' isn't an excuse - you've got to take the Katz experience by the scruff of its neck.

As you step inside, you're given a ticket at the door, which you hand to the guys behind the serving counter when you order your sandwich.  There is a table service section down one wall of the restaurant, but we fancied stepping up to the counter and seeing the construction of our enormowiches up close. We ordered a pastrami sandwich and a pastrami Reuben (like the pastrami sandwich but with added sauerkraut, more cheese than Holland exports in any one year and Thousand Island dressing. Lots of it.) 

After your sandwich has been carved, grilled, melted and cut in half, you have to walk to a different part of the counter to order beers and chips.
Thankfully, I was talked out of getting chips. Because here is the result. The handiwork of our talented sandwich maker.
Note the pickles in the background and consider a few things. 1. That's an absurd amount of pickles for just two people. 2. Those two people are already having to contend with the giant sandwiches in front of them. 3. The pickles come in two colours according to depth of pickling. The duller green pickles are full sour. The lighter green are half sour.

The decision to use knife and fork wasn't borne out of etiquette but rather that there is no other way to tackle the behemoth in front of you. 

The sandwich was out-of-this-world. The best pastrami I've ever tasted, all washed down with a Brooklyn beer. 

Luminaries including Bill Clinton and Rod Stewart adorn the walls. The faces on the wall of fame eyeballing you as you start to hit the wall about three-quarters of the way through your sandwich. The arrival of the meat sweats coincided with my decision to sacrifice my beer, because it was taking up useful space in my stomach. 

We did it. And we were proud. Our marked tickets were taken up to the cashier at the exit. We paid and slowly paced into the New York night, clutching our bellies and gearing up for the Gaviscon. 

Katz's honestly was game over for us. We ate there about 4pm. We forced ourselves to walk for about an hour afterwards to help kick-start the digestion. But by 6pm we were back at our hotel and didn't venture out again.

A day later, at The Strand bookshop, I found the Katz's Deli book. Inside, it revealed that each sandwich weighs the equivalent of an American football. Which might explain why we had to spend the rest of the evening nursing our distended bellies. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Restaurant review: Upstairs at The Ten Bells, Spitalfields

Above the pub famous for being a haunt of Jack the Ripper, and the location for his hook-up with his final victim Mary Kelly, my Dad and I intrepidly went for dinner on Thursday night.

According to latest noise pollution levels from Hackney Council, The Ten Bells is the loudest pub in the borough. Probably.

Hurdle number one, therefore, is getting through the pub to reach the unassuming stairs in the back corner to get up to the first floor dining room.

And in so doing, it’s as if the landlord of The Ten Bells has done everything in his power to make your journey unappetizing.

The air is moistened with people’s clothes and hair wet from the rain, the temperature is rainforest humid, the noise from thirsty revellers packing the bar is almost painful.  Like when a sudden loud sound makes you want to burst into tears or clobber someone. As you get to the stairs you pass the well down to the subterranean toilets, graffiti’d, defaced and looking much like a crack den.

My Dad summed it up nicely: “it’s terribly East London.”

In our safe enclave on the first floor, Dad got out his torch app on his iphone to read the menu. It’s an atmospheric setting, one room with windows overlooking Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, dimly lit, and full of battered wooden furniture.

The music deserves a mention, because it seemed like one of the staff had their iphone on shuffle with a limited repertoire of about 15 songs. We heard Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out four times. It could’ve been worse I suppose.

We had a sharing table, which meant that we were joined by two perfect strangers about halfway through our meal. You could tell the other couple were a little uncomfortable with the proximity, when the chap nervously asked the waitress “could we go on that table, to save disturbing these people?” 

They couldn’t, because Upstairs at The Ten Bells was fully booked, the dining room soon becoming as busy and cacophonous as the downstairs pub. My dining partner and I were halfway through our magnum of red wine by that point, so didn’t mind the interlopers as much as we thought we would.

And that’s the thing – this place has an undeniable popularity.
Analytically, it’s hard to see why. However, there is something nicely but not dangerously intoxicating about the place. It just kind of sucks you in until you realize that you’re talking at a decibel level that Gregg Wallace would shrink from.

The food, unfortunately, was disappointing.
Dad had leeks in a cheese fondue sauce to start, then partridge. I had lamb sweetbread ravioli then beef rump. We also tried the buttermilk chicken as a snack with our opening cocktails.  Dad’s dessert came up trumps. The cheese selection was sourced from Androuet in Spitalfields over the road. But the three cheeses on offer were all soft white cheeses. Which is not really a ‘selection’ in my book. Mix it up a bit at least. Or dash across the road and go and buy some hard and blue.

The atmosphere – against all right to be – was better than the food. Still good value but wouldn’t be in a hurry to return.  Or perhaps I would – if only to check that those ‘edgy’ toilets in the latrinalia style are for real. 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Restaurant review: Rotary, Old Street

This place closes in 65 days, so excuse the exhortation but make sure you journey in its direction fast.

Rotary is an American diner pop-up next to Old Street roundabout (hence its name, as rotary is what our Yankee friends call roundabouts).

It's deeply 70s in decor. Sartre remarked that  in The Geffreye Museum of Homes, it could easily double as the 70s room.

You can't really see what I mean in the picture below because the other thing about the interior is, it's dark.

We ate the brilliantly named Pork Bomb to start (shredded pulled pork in a breadcrumb coating then deep fried). They were dispatched with so quickly, I didn't get a photo.
Followed by The Rotary Disco Burger and Hot Chicken Wings.

Oh, and the pork beans. The pork beans! This was a meaty little treat in a ramekin. A very pleasing pork to pulse ratio, and by that I mean, they went large on the pork and easy on the pulses.

The food was authentically American. The portion size wasn't gross. The staff were quick off the mark.

It's a great laid-back place in which to sink one more beer than you should and enjoy the slightly smug Old Street hipster vibe.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Acetaia review: Acetaia di Giorgio, Modena

We went on a vinegar tour.

Of course we did.

For Sartre, a week without a museum is like a bowl of salad. He can't see the point. Even on holiday we have to "improve our brains."

So along we went.

It was a strangely touching tour. Guided by the wife of the master vinegar maker in their private home on the outskirts of Modena, Giovanna won her audience over and no mistake.

Once upon a time, their villa must have been gloriously located in Modenese fields and vineyards. Today, it's crammed in at the side of a busy overpass, a huge and ceaselessly busy McDonalds and a tyre fitters. Nonetheless, the quiet magic of devoting your life to making "black gold" (genuine balsamic vinegar) and the charming manner of the family sets to work on you.

Balsamic vinegar is stored in the attic of a house. It's a patient profession, in which you wait a minimum of five years for the first batch, which basically gets decanted down a row of ever decreasing barrels. Then, to "reward" you for your artisanal dedication, the frankly pernickety-sounding Modenese authorities inspect and taste, and make you buy a certain type of bottle to put it in.

But by God, I salute Giovanna and her family's vinegary aptitude, because the results are quite special. Sweet and complex enough to serve as a palate cleanser between courses of a meal, as well as with parmesan and all the usual serving suggestions, her range of 12 and 25 year old vinegars wowed the group. (Terribly pretentious idea for a dinner party, that...To be honest, I'm going to find myself doing it).

The bottle tip was illuminating - the bottom picture in the next three is the only bottle shape that proper authentic balsamic vinegar will ever come in. Any other bottle shape simply isn't the stuff.

To expand upon the touching comment I made upfront here's an example. The husband and wife team named their most prestigious batch of vinegar after their only daughter Carlotta. That's because balsamic vinegar doubled as a dowry historically, and the makers nowadays have upheld the tradition.

If further proof were needed of this family's gastronomic credentials, the aforementioned Carlotta is apparently in nearby Emilia Romagna studying to be a master in Parmesan. Rock. On.

Sartre was as happy as Darwin in his potting shed. Witness him below trying to get to top of the class.

Restaurant review: Ristorante Pizzeria Uva d'Oro, Modena

The food won't blow your mind here but we enjoyed the quintessential Italian gut-buster of a lunch, that is a pasta starter followed by a pizza main course. We felt like we'd properly arrived. 

Is there anything better than a full-sized pasta dish (because the Italians don't do starter size) just to whet your appetite followed by "same again" on the carbs in the form of delicious warm dough topped with meats and cheese? 

This was the moment when the pizza beat us. 

Restaurant review: Hosteria Giusti, Modena

Hosteria Giusti is at the back of a butcher's shop in Modena. It's unassuming in decor, but the food is anything but. 

It is one of the best lunches I've ever had the good fortune to have. 

There are just 4 tables and some outside space - but the outdoors is really just a handful of tables in a long quiet alley at the back of the shop. 

The food was out of this world - incredible flavours, beautifully presented (but far from fussy) and you simply wanted to slip off your shoes, order another bottle of Barbera, and stay there all afternoon. 

The place has enormous cache / bragging rights because it's hidden away and only seats a few people. But it's also far more than just a place to tell others about. 

The food is epic. I wish I could find a reason to be in Modena every week so I could sample more of it. We had stuffed and crisp-fried zucchini flowers, then a veal pasta course. For main, I had veal cheek, which felt like it had the richness of about 7 stockpots which had been simmering for weeks. Sartre had a spicy deep fried local sausage, which was intense pink in colour and packed just about the porkiest punch we've ever experienced. 

The service was flawless - everything just-so, but also warm and friendly - not stand on ceremony. 

It's a totally enchanting experience and I urge you to go if you find yourself in Modena. It's the best thing we did there and an unforgettable dining experience.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Restaurant review: The Albion, Islington

Welcome to Gentrified Central. Population: 60 smug Islingtonites and 60 masochists who have to traipse through the leafy lanes to get to The Albion and witness the area's majestic beauty.

A Sunday afternoon feeling a little bit ropey from the night before.

Rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding and a glass of red did me the power of good. I felt rather like Jake from The Sun Also Rises.

"I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."

The only thing that let the roast down was the watery and flavourless gravy. It is not enough for gravy simply to be wet.

The garden at this place is really the draw. Everything else - the food, the decor, the staff - is what you'd expect from a pricey gastropub in a chi-chi part of town. Which is not to say that isn't exactly how you want to feel from time to time.

But the back garden genuinely delights - somehow they've contrived for it to feel smart and well-heeled yet tranquil and arboreal. You could be in the patio of a boutique hotel in Moreton-in-the-Marsh rather than Zone 1.

And there we stayed.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Restaurant review: Social Eating House, Soho

Jason Atherton has a link with my previous El Bulli blog post, as he was the first British chef to complete a stage there in the late 90s.

I love Pollen Street Social with reckless abandon, so I was insistent about trying his new haunt on Poland Street in Soho. 

Social Eating House's branding is a typographer's dream - it would make Rudolf Koch melt in the middle. Inside the restaurant, its beautiful gilded logo is kept company by shiny gold pig heads, vintage crystal glasses for cocktails, and copper and leather as far as the eye can see.

It's a distinctly Gatsby-speakeasy decor - a little like the fantastic underground den Nightjar, near Old Street. It's got just the right lighting, just the right hubbub and just the right amount of space between tables. This interior is the first of many gorgeous things that you'll encounter on stepping inside. 

Sartre and I were dining with my Dad and his girlfriend, Kim. I firmly believe that a restaurant has an impact on the mood of your dining party and we were all on top form. The pewter tankards might have had something to do with it - try drinking Meantime with a frown from one of these:

And so to the food. 

Ir's clear my photography is not as quick off the mark as the plates arriving at table, because most plates appear to be dressed with an odd chip. 

Whilst a chip garnish is a well-known technique of the Shepherdess Cafe's, it is not one of Paul Hood's. 
It's simply a sign of the delicious nickability of the chips in the middle of the table.

Observe the roast cornish cod, with cockles and cream. Epic. 

Behold the P.B.J. Dessert perfection, in candy-coloured doughnuts and ice creams.

And look at this cheese. I can actually smell it.

My Dad was particularly upset that the plaice and brown shrimp was sold out. Alas, the waiter's acceptance of Dad's mission to "scour the kitchen for brown shrimp!" was not fruitful. So he went for halibut instead.

Social Eating House is, as the name would suggest, a more relaxed version of Pollen Street Social. And it's got a lot going for it. Make a play for it as soon as you can. 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Restaurant review: L’Iskele, Clerkenwell

This is a perfectly pleasant neighbourhood eatery.

We sat outside on a baking Friday evening, drinking cold white wine, and watching as a Friday Night Skate group sailed past us. One of those moments when you're reminded how it's great and interesting and surprising to live in London. (I doubt that could happen in my native Solihull in a month of Sundays - much as I love the place).

We ate grilled halloumi cheese and salad, which was delicious, then we shared chicken on skewers and lamb koftas, with rice and more dressed salad.

There’s a distinct holiday vibe about this place on account of two specific bits of service. Firstly, you’re encouraged in by the maĆ®tre-d on the door as you walk past and secondly, you’re given a free shot of Amaretto as you pay the bill.

The restaurant is inexplicably both pizza restaurant (which looked very good) and the Turkish restaurant. Different branding for each on the exterior, but  they share the same dining and kitchen space on the inside. It's just kind of 'anything goes' like that. 

When their 10pm curfew for outside seating kicked in, we were transported inside to the grotto-like restaurant interior.

It’s cheap and it’s cheerful. 

My Mum would like the way it’s dimly lit and twinkly. 

The food fills a gap but barely a blog post. 

Exhibition review: El Bulli, Art of Food, Somerset House

 “Creativity means not copying”

This exhibition is a brilliant, mind-opening way to spend an hour.

Interestingly, it’s been organized by the Catalan Tourism Authority - I struggled to see how a shrine to an impossibly great thing that’s no longer there anymore is going to boost tourism.

That said…

Ferran Adria’s achievements are hulking - he was Head Chef of El Bulli aged 25. Inspired by Nouvelle Cuisine pioneers Michel Bras and Pierre Gagnaire, he set about turning the restaurant scene on its head. He truly is the godfather of molecular gastronomy, even though he is said to dislike the term. I smirked at one unenlightened exhibition-goer proclaiming loudly to her friend that it was “all a bit Heston.”

The thing that struck me was the way Adria approached cooking with a child-like innocence and no historical baggage. He simply thought – forget what’s gone before, what could cooking be like?  There’s a saying that “the creative adult is the child who survived” and that was in evidence here. Suddenly edible airs, foams, spheres, caviar of every material, disappearing ravioli and deconstructed cocktails all make perfect sense.

Adria was the first chef to establish a workshop, in which he could develop new techniques, methods and dishes in the months when the restaurant was closed.
He was the first to seriously import industrial equipment into the commercial kitchen, from PVC tubes to silicon moulds and liquid nitrogen baths. A creative agent provocateur he most certainly was.

It occurred to me, probably for the first time, how much inspiration Adria drew from Japanese cookery – both new methods of cooking and the Japanese knack for exquisite presentation.

It’s also an exhibition about the power of purpose. Once you’ve declared “creativity means not copying” you’ve set yourself on a clear path. Experiment, invent, and try things never applied to food before.

I was fascinated by how well the team at El Bulli understood marketing. The French bulldog branding is everywhere (the "bulli" after which the restaurant is named), the romanticism of approaching the restaurant by water, the scarcity value of shutting the place for half of the year. 

His food was designed to appeal to a sixth sense, in addition to the five senses you’d normally consider as part of the experience of eating.
And that sixth sense might be surprise, or irony, or amusement.  He didn’t mind – provided it engaged his diner on a visceral level.

For me, this exhibition left none of my senses unprovoked. There’s theatre and pomp, which the more cynical visitor might think is a bit much considering we’re talking about someone who cooks dinners for a living. It’s not brain surgery.  
But I thought it was a treat. And beware the debilitating envy you’ll feel for those who managed to eat at El Bulli before it closed its doors.