Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Restaurant review: Lofoten, Oslo

Oslo.

City of gleaming water, clean air, and people as mightily healthy as their viking ancestors.  

With colleagues I ate at this popular seafood restaurant on the harbour. 

Norway just does things well. Thoughtfully, carefully and smartly. This restaurant is no exception. 

The waiting staff were excellent. The modern art on the walls was subtly provocative. The cutlery was heavy and well-crafted. The windows opening the restaurant up to the sea were spotless. 

The Norwegian business class were in here in abundance on a Wednesday early evening, creating a nice buzz and a palpable envy (in me) of their enlightened way of life. 

After a generous bowl of peeled prawns to start, I ate reindeer steak for main course. Light-touch in preparation, the freshness of the ingredients spoke for themselves. A delicious, simply done meal. 

We paid Scandinavian prices for dinner for four with a couple of bottle of wines, with the bill coming to nearly £600. 




Kiosk review: St John's doughnuts, London Bridge

On our way to the Fashion and Textiles Museum, we visited the hole in the wall that sells St John's doughnuts in London Bridge.

There are moments when you know you've been in London too long and have turned in to the kind of yuppie that you scoffed at, growing up in a Midlands town in the 90s.


That moment was paying £2.70 for one doughnut.


I'd get knocked into next week if I went back to my hometown and told people I'd spent £2.70 on one doughnut.


It was a very good doughnut. And eating it straight from a brown paper St John bag lent its own rustic charm. 


Restaurant review: Tuddenham Mill, Suffolk

This place oozes ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’. A 17th century converted watermill in a tiny village not far from Cambridge, where pig farms appear to be the only sign of industry for miles.

It describes itself as rustic chic. Whilst this is an admittedly well-worn concept, Tuddenham Mill does it very well.

It does it with a bit more capaciousness than you might be used to.
We had a room of massive proportions in a spick and span outbuilding, with a lovely terrace and complimentary sloe-gin.
You have to love a place that encourages you to check in and drink sloe-gin before dinner time (or at least that’s how we interpreted the freebie).


Courtesy of Tuddenham Mill
The gorgeous exterior made me think of Grand Designs. "Today, we're in Suffolk meeting the couple who gave up lucrative careers in the city of London, to come to the sticks to do up this 17th century watermill."

The restaurant here used to be presided over by Paul Foster, who trained under Sat Bains. Paul Foster recently moved to Mallory Court in Warwickshire – another chocolate box hotel in a rural setting - and the kitchen is now run by Lee Bye, who was his sous chef.

The staff were pleasant throughout but there was the odd service bum-note that gave the impression the hotel had only just opened (it hasn’t).
For pre-dinner drinks we sat in the bar next to the mill’s water-wheel. Whilst highly pleasing to the eye, the bar smelt a little damp and our cocktail waiter didn’t know what a Negroni was, which raised an eyebrow.

I had the glazed monk cheek with coppa to start followed by the Dingley Dell pork chop.  
Sartre had the beef shin carpaccio to start followed by duck breast and roasted chervil roots.
The food is presented on plates that are clean and pretty, and the ingredients were expertly handled and tasted local and delicious.

Although there were about ten other tables that night, the dining room’s downside is that it’s serious and hushed.

The food’s well worth the trip and Tuddenham Mill is a pleasing little bolt-hole to discover.




Restaurant review: The Ape & Bird, Shaftesbury Avenue

Russell Norman, more in vogue than allotments or crown-braids right now, recently opened this huge pub on Cambridge Circus.  
The man behind Mishkins, Spuntino and Polpo can do no wrong it seems.
But Ape and Bird didn’t quite work for me.

The odd RKO Radio Pictures typeface of the pub’s name was the first thing I noticed. This messing with pub conventions continues throughout, so buckle up if you’re a pub traditionalist. It’s stormy waters ahead. 
(Put simply, this is the sort of place where Pete Brown would run for cover).


reproduced from their website apeandbird.com 


Maybe it’s author’s knowledge that’s the root of why I didn’t enjoy my night here.  

When Russell Norman and Richard Beatty popularised the Venetian chichetti bar in Polpo, or the Brooklyn diner in Spuntino, I was a true believer.  They brought an exotic slice of ‘elsewhere’ to Soho and made it accessible, good value and glamorous.

Their restaurants are as much a feast for the ego as the palate.  Queuing became cool. Because there's nothing more old-world elitist than calling ahead for a table now is there? Their restaurants are all about being where it’s at. Earning your seat at the bar after a wait, in which time you've drunk one too many, to eat cheek-by-jowl next to the media bratpack of Soho.

But Ape and Bird doesn’t carry that same kudos. It’s a three storey, high ceilinged establishment, its floor strewn with the laptop bags of people having downed tools (and luggage) for a Friday night drink and slightly fractious staff constantly picking their way through the obstacle course.

I ate beef shin pot pie, which was excessively rich and heavy. I didn't really enjoy it. It felt a bit unloved. A bit banged out.

The highlight of my visit was the downstairs gin joint. A dark and moody cocktail bar where you can imagine having one too many Negronis and emerge blinking into the London afternoon, knocking tourists out the way as you blast down Shaftesbury Avenue.

Russell Norman has described Ape and Bird as “folksy and friendly.” I found it large, loud and difficult to navigate. And the food was fairly disappointing. 

Perhaps more accurately he’s called it ‘a pub for people who don’t like pubs.’

My thoughts exactly.

Restaurant review: Smokehouse, Islington

Smokehouse is a shrine to smoked meats, housed in a recently converted pub on the residential outskirts of Islington.
It’s located on the not-much–to-speak-of Canonbury Road. Hoping for a homage to the generous barbecue joints we found in Chicago, we tried our luck for a table on a Friday evening.

Smokehouse is from the people behind The Princess of Shoreditch (as well as a few other smart pubs), which is one of my favourite places to while away a Sunday afternoon. So I had high hopes, which were amply met.

It’s a good atmosphere in here. 
It’s like Bodean's, if Boden's focused more on the food than the fiesta. 
And it's like Meat Mission, if Meat Mission applied their craft to the menu, instead of the beards on the bar staff.

It’s dark, with low tables packed in together convivially. 

The menu is genuinely interesting. I had chopped brisket roll to start, followed by peppered ox cheek and cauliflower cheese.




A light supper

It strikes the right balance between obvious deliciousness and experimentation. Courses like The Sphere or Burnt leeks with artichoke, are balanced with out-and-out crowd-pleasers like crab on toast; foie gras, apple pie and duck egg; and shortrib bourguignon.

Crowd-pleaser

The staff were excellent – the kind who embrace a customer like me who asks them to recommend something.
They seemed genuinely passionate, about the concept and the menu. 
We even wangled an illicit tour to their smoker in the backyard, thanks to a maverick waiter buoyed by our praise of the brisket.

Smokehouse’s stock in trade is incredibly rich, deep-flavoured meats, expertly cooked.

It’s the sort of meal where you can’t do much afterwards but go and digest it.


I hope the location of Smokehouse doesn't undo their good work. It’s a bit too far off the circuit to wander past by accident. The food is worth the detour, so let's hope if salience fails, their smokers fill the Islington air with invitation.