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 maître-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.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Restaurant review: Five Guys, Covent Garden

Shamelessly wanting to be at the crest of the London restaurant wave, Sartre and I darted in here for a burger on a scorching Saturday afternoon. Well, I say darted, but I mean dawdled, as we joined the queue of other early adopters, patriotic Americans and tourists who assumed something big was going on.

The queue moved swiftly while we perused the menu. Well, I say menu, but I mean flyer. That didn't take long, so we killed time remarking on the startling similarity of the Five Guys branding and that of a mini-cab firm.

I know this place is doing insane business here in this new London outpost, following its conquering of the States, but I wasn't wholly convinced.

Things I liked:

- That double patties come as standard.
- The fact the burgers come wrapped in sheets of no-nonsense foil.
- That toppings are free and in fine variety.
- That bonafide American serving staff are strategically positioned at key moments of truth - I give you the easy chit-chattin' doorman, and the gritty New Jersey lady who yells your number when it's time to collect your food, then gives you a winning smile and a "have a nice day".
- The smarter than average self-serve Coke machines, that dispensed every flavour of soft drink you've ever encountered or imagined.
- That everything's fresh - they proclaim in person and in poster that there are no freezers on-site.

Things I didn't like:

- The self-congratulatory signage EVERYWHERE. Winner of Best Burger in Wisconsin.  The USA's favourite fries. Voted Best Bun in New Mexico. Victor of the Relish Wars in Rhode Island. I'm here, I'm in - you already got me. It's like pulling someone average-looking at a club, and having them phone their sister so she can list out all their good qualities on the cab ride back to yours.
- The fries. Although I learned (from one of the many backslapping posters, cf previous point) that Five Guys fries are Brooklyn's favourite, they didn't come close to a chip-shop chip. I found these chips limp and moist.  Five Guys think they are Lord of the Fries. I do not.
- That they fill your bag with chips in addition to the chips you actually bought, which come in a cup. Putting aside the fact I wasn't sold on the pre-eminence of their chips, there's something grotesque about this. And, unlike the piggy thrill you get from sneaking the one or two that find their way to the bottom of the bag in McDonalds, this was just gut-busting excess that no-one could hope to finish.
- The decor. More accurately, the lack of any kind of decor whatsoever.

Glad I've done it but not desperate to go back.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Restaurant review: Centre Point Sushi, London

I didn't want to gushingly follow all the other reviews on this place, but they’ve hit the nail on the head.

This highly authentic Japanese restaurant is a hidden gem.

I got soy sauce all down the front of a new white silk blouse and it STILL didn’t dim my ardour for this elysian eatery.

You can find it upstairs in the Centre Point Food Store. The caché of its hidden location is just the first of many happy discoveries.   I went to Japan a couple of years ago and I was transported back to the wynds and nooks of Tokyo as we ascended to find it.

I had a bento box of sushi and tempura. My friend, Special K, had chicken teriyaki and rice. The food was fresh as a foal (unfortunate horsemeat-esque simile I suppose) and beautifully presented. The menu is one of those rare things where you want to eat everything on it. As my tempura prawns approached the table, they made you want to leap off your seat to snag one with an impatient paw before they had a chance to cool. Portions were generous, the menu was well-priced and the staff were welcoming.  And, whilst waiting for your lunch, you can feast your eyes on the sight of the talented chefs working in the open kitchen.

Because of its unprepossessing location, it’s a great place to have business lunches with people more interested in food than faces. It’s a place for which the term “bragging rights” was invented. Take a client here for lunch and they’ll tell ten people about the amazing little Japanese place above a supermarket near Tottenham Court Road.

I loved it and I’ll be using all my cunning to go back there as soon as possible to try more of that magnificent menu.