Friday, 28 June 2013

Restaurant review: Hache, Camden

If they gave out awards for bad ideas, I would have a packed trophy cabinet for my efforts last night.

I took my Dad to Hache, Camden. 

The acorn didn't fall very far from the tree when it comes to my pickiness about restaurants. In fact, my Dad is the Grand Master. 

There are two things that get on his wick more than anything. One,  a clattery, shouty environment in which he can't hear himself think. And secondly, a 'laissez-faire' attitude to service. 

Unfortunately, Hache was both. 

Which was a shame because the burgers were very good. And there's a big, creative choice of them. (Not that I'll ever be going back to taste another).  

It was simply too noisy, too crowded and the staff didn't show much care. They dripped wine when they poured it, they put about a thimble's measure in each glass, they left us sitting for ages before making first contact. Lacklustre in the extreme. 

I look forward to my Dad's devastating review of it on Tripadvisor. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Greasy spoon review: Shepherdess Cafe, City Road

I am going to borrow from Russell Davies here, whose book Egg, Bacon, Chips & Beans is well worth a read if you’re a fan of the British caff. On visiting the Shepherdess Café, on a dark December morning, he remarked on it glowing like an Edward Hopper painting. I reproduce his photo here, so you can appreciate what a good observation that is.

If you are to take one thing out of this review, it should be this. My boyfriend’s breakfast was so big, it came on two plates. (Three if you count the plate of toast).

He manfully opted for the Cop the Lot. A lumpy sea of beans came on the separate plate, because his first plate was packed solid with black pudding, bacon, sausage, hash browns, mushrooms, tomato and eggs.  There were the traditional (for the Shep) few chips - four in number actually - as if they had fallen out of the fryer and been added as garnish, rather than deliberately placed there as a component of the meal.

It really was a plate to ‘ooh’ and ‘aaah’ over – a bit like if someone brings a cake with candles to the table. You just want to get a look at it and take a snap.

I rather modestly went for sausages, hash browns and tomatoes with white toast.  Despite it being a third of the size of his, it still very successfully kept hunger locked up til lunch.

Note the artful scoring of my sausages in the photo. I’m not sure this is a cooking technique that the Cordon Bleu would advocate but it certainly makes eating easier – it gives you a ready made point in which to plunge your knife.

The Shepherdess is my local and I am very fond of it. There are few places that combine pictures of the glitterati who have breakfasted there (All Saints, Barry from Eastenders, Jamie Oliver) with a sign telling workmen to keep their boots off the seats.

It’s incredibly well-appointed. Bang on the busy City Road, and bathed in light from the windows, you feel like you are in a goldfish bowl in the middle of a roundabout. There is no bad place to sit in this joint – fact – because of the mirrored backwall, which allows you to see everything.

The staff are sweet. The seats are fixed. The menu is straight out of Goodnight Sweetheart – liver sausage, sardines on toast, tinned salmon.

Your order is greasily written on greasy paper, and very efficiently dealt with at the till by the door when you leave. Personal bugbear of waiting for your bill = neatly avoided here. 

I noticed on this visit that they have made the menu a touch more gimmicky with names for the breakfasts, Little Chef style. Cop The Lot, Veggie Feast, Cinnamon Pancake Girl (OK, the last one was mine).  

Yet it remains a traditional place, where an eclectic mix of people take a quick pit-stop in their day. And as such, it’s as much an example of the British condition as it is the British caff.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Jaaaaazz review: Ronnie Scott's, Soho

We went here to celebrate Sartre's birthday and it was a big night out - an incredible blues/gospel band from the US who raised the roof (Robert Randolph and The Family Band), a good dinner and an eclectic mix of drinks. 

We ate: 
Pumpkin tortellini (him) and Mackerel mousse (me) for starters
Rump steak (him) and Rump of lamb (me) for main course
Vanilla and honeycomb ice-cream shared as dessert

We washed it all down with a bottle of Louis Latour Pinot Noir, some Muscat dessert wine and an espresso martini to send us on our way. 

There's no getting away from it - Ronnie Scott's is expensive and the food doesn't quite deliver. That said, you're not really getting the full experience without dining. There's something sumptuous about settling in at your table in the romantically-lit room, and hunkering down with food, drink and music for a few hours, unaware of time slipping away and the busy wynds of Soho carrying on regardless outside. 

Evocative and fun, but not culinary gold.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Restaurant review: Porthminster Beach Café, St Ives

We celebrated my friend Karen’s birthday here.
We had arrived in St Ives from an overcast London only that afternoon, so it felt pretty magical to be dining by the sea that evening.
Being honest, I found the décor and the clientele a little chi-chi for my tastes, but it was redeemed by nice staff and food that really delivers.
On the  chi-chi factor, Porthminster’s Beach Café does have the sense of a place that ‘considerably richer than you’ folk go to show off.  Where scoring a reservation in high season is a sign of your standing in holiday-home society. 
I’m being a bit unkind considering I did rate the food.
I had monkfish curry – generous on the fish, excellent on flavour, strewn with coconut flakes, and crispy onions to liven up the rice.  The cheeseboard that followed featured a magnificent Cornish blue, fig paste slithers and bountiful crackers. 
Karen had whole lemon sole and Nga had mussels. There were murmurs of approval all round.
As an aperitif we made a good find – a Camel Valley sparkling wine, which was a dark rosé in colour but not sweet. And we had a good Viognier with dinner and delicious dessert wine with our cheese (not dessert) because I steer clear of Port if I’m sober enough to remember to.

After dinner, we hurried back into St Ives town and to the Kettle n’ Wink, where we found the sexier, Cornish versions of Crazy Heart and David St Hubbins jamming in a locals pub.
A great band, they sat around a table, as if they had just intended to have a drink with each other, but couldn’t resist bursting into a set.
Wings, Neil Young, lots of Blues – they even made me re-examine my usually staunch views on Elbow.
A couple of pints of Proper Job and two Jamesons later, and I wanted to move here.
We discreetly papped Crazy Heart, band leader and musical virtuoso, for posterity. Crazy only played the songs he wanted to play and it appeared that everyone else in the band played only for Crazy’s admiration.
He’s the blueprint of how I want Sartre to age.  But he’d better start working on his beard now because you don’t get that density of pile without years of grooming.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Restaurant review: Akari, Islington

Akari shouldn’t work. But it does. Or at least, it does for me. It might not be everyone’s cup of sake.
I’d been on at Sartre about trying it for ages as we seem to drive past it a lot.  Finally, one sunny Sunday evening he relented, and we took a stroll up there.

Akari is housed in a converted pub but the word ‘converted’ is probably too generous.  It’s now a Japanese restaurant but used to be an old and unlovely Essex Road boozer. They’ve hardly done a thing to it. So you really feel like you are squatting in an old pub. Surfaces seem dusty and the thick chipped paint covers up centuries of hedonism, many layers thick. The waiting staff are quiet as mime artists and serve you interchangeably.

But all of that is fine. Really, it’s fine, because I loved the food.

I had chunks of beef in ginger and soy, which had amazing flavour and the Akari roll from their sushi menu, which was dreamy in the extreme. Sartre had chicken teriyaki and stir fried greens.  

I’ll be going back for more sushi as soon as I’ve worn Sartre down again. 

Restaurant review: Porthmeor Beachside Cafe, St Ives

A plumply filled brown-bread crab sandwich, aioli, dressed salad, chilled Pinot Grigio and cutlery that came in a bucket and spade. And THIS view.

It takes a lot to beat the feeling of your first daytime sun-drenched drink of the holiday. The daytime bit is important. On your first sip, you must pay heed to what you would normally be doing. The niggles and hassles of meetings, commuting, time-sheets and chit-chat. All these things leave the body almost palpably. Lines on the forehead start to unfurl and the stress ezema on your hands starts to bugger off.  
Here we had a nice lunch with sweet waitresses who were quick off the mark and kindly charged one of our phones while we ate.
Porthmeor Café is a very respectable beachside caff.
Especially to seize on that ‘slipping your shoes off and digging your toes into the sand for the first time’ moment. 

Restaurant review: The Tinners Arms, Zennor

This was about as idyllic a Cornish lunch as you could imagine, every calorie of which we earned the hard way after a 6 mile hike along the coastal path from St Ives.

I don’t know whether it was the hearty food, the sun-trap beer garden or the local colour that made the experience so delicious.

Under a blue sky, three thirsty girls arrived at The Tinners. We found a table outside, ordered our drinks and pored over the lunch menu.

My friend Karen went in to order at the bar. I love those sunlit afternoons when the inside of a bar seems as dark and cool as a cave. Inside, Karen placed our order – a pint of prawns and granary bread, a goat’s cheese salad and a ham ploughman’s. We came unstuck with the latter.

To give you some important context, the Tinners is presided over by a woman in her sixties and her troupe of buxom local barmaids. It appeared to me that they all love working in this pub.

The barmaid taking Karen’s order asked her if she wanted cheese for an extra pound on her ham ploughman’s.  Karen queried whether cheese wouldn’t already be included on a ploughman’s. The barmaid, failing to stifle her laughter, rebuked Karen that this was not the case.
Karen paid and scurried. Except she’d forgotten to take cutlery. On bravely re-entering the pub she heard the same barmaid telling her colleague: “Cheese? I couldn’t keep a straight face.”

So, as a piece of advice, I’d say, don’t question the ploughman’s. And do pay for the cheese because it was fantastic value – brie, Cornish blue, goats cheese and a delicious vintage cheddar, all in generous chunks.

A second piece of local colour that occurred later is worth mentioning.  The Tribute beer delivery arrived and after unloading, the two draymen cooled down with a Coke in the bar.  This time, I went to the bar for another round.

They were in high spirits and the brace of barmaids were lapping it up.

Drayman 1: “Guess what?”
Barmaid: “What?”
Drayman 1: “I ran over a turkey this morning. 10 tonne of truck behind me – I couldn’t stop. I said to Mick, I said, I’ve ruined someone’s Christmas.”
Peals of laughter.
Barmaid: “Where you off next boys?”
Drayman 2: “Gurnards, Cobblers, then back to St Ives.”

I went thirsty but I didn’t mind.

So, the food was perfectly appropriate for the setting. It was decently prepared and, even better, served with local charm: the waitress who brought our food called out “Prawns?” and handed me mine. Then, with the goats cheese salad in hand, glanced at it, glanced at it again and said “I don’t know what this is.”

The bus stop told us the next bus was two hours away, so we splurged on a minicab back to St Ives, which rattled us back along the coast road, full of victuals and stories.