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.