Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Restaurant review: Anzu, St James's Market

On its first official night of trading, following a soft launch for a few weeks, the fit-out is immaculate and Anzu is giving off the restaurant equivalent of ‘new car’ smell.

We arrive at 7pm on a Monday night that will prove too cloudy to see the supermoon, for a spot of Japanese to celebrate our anniversary.

Anzu is a new addition to the Tonkotsu stable. It’s pitched as a smart but affordable Japanese brasserie, and it feels like their fight-back to the Shurya chain. The two have much in common in terms of the sleekness of décor and service.

Anzu means apricot, which is a misnomer. It’s nothing like a squidgy, slightly furry fruit.

It’s actually clean, spare, swish. In hues of natural wood and stone.

The food is very nice but rather unchallenging.

To its credit, there’s a generosity of spirit here. That might be a show of opening night goodwill, which may harden and shrink over time. But I found it to be good value.

The Teishoku main courses were substantial.

I had a generous portion of salmon teriyaki. The fish was good quality and deliciously seasoned. Sartre’s seafood katsu consisted of two big pieces of white-fish and a giant prawn, lightly tempura-battered. We each had a big bowl of rice, that I had no hope of finishing, a well-dressed miso soup and some seriously moreish pickles.  Our little pot of green tea was refilled for free, several times.

We saved room for a very pretty apricot and blackberry cheesecake, the tangy fruit offsetting the creaminess perfectly. Despite its perfect presentation, it had a touch of the pre-formed about it. Like something you would get served in Emirates upper class.

Afterwards, as we walked through the cranks and tourists in Leicester Square, we mused on Anzu’s chances of success.

Sartre is convinced it’s a bad site. And that Planet Hollywood as your nearest on-street marker is not a good thing.

He may have a point. The restaurant was quiet – four other tables were in.  But it was a Monday night in that mid November deadzone between bonfire night and Christmas. Often a quiet period, as people tighten their belts before the excess that December wreaks on your wallet and your waistline. 

I’m minded to see what the rest of the St James's Market redevelopment brings. Once finished, it might bring the footfall that Anzu deserves.

We concluded that we hope they do well.  Perhaps partly to assuage our guilt about accidentally smashing an expensive looking soy sauce dish on our way out.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Six things you can learn from a 1980s cookbook

Magimix Cookery, published 1982
Magimix Cookery was a sequel to a 1978 bestseller Magimix and Food Processor Cookery Book. 

Back then, books clearly didn’t need snappy titles to sell in numbers.

Written when food processors were a completely new and revolutionary bit of kitchen tech, the book is a guide to all the things the home cook can do with their new gadget.

Reading it now, it’s an anthology of long-gone dishes, quaint techniques and pointers to what society, and its attitude to food, was like back then.

Here are a few things that stuck out. 


1/ Early 80s home-makers were seriously industrious

This schedule puts that of Maggie Thatcher’s to shame. A call to Gorbachev and a cabinet meeting before lunch? Pah! This woman has made enough cakes to embarrass the W.I. and three different sorts of terrine by then.

And wait til you hear about her pancake handling:

2/ Food photography was unsentimental

In this littoral scene, a grieving family of crabs visit their slaughtered relatives, who are now in the form of crab soup.

On the next page, these kippers and mackerel have beached themselves in order to attend the wake of their shoal-mates, who were turned into smoked fish pate. 

I flick to the Game section expecting the characters from Watership Down to be mourning a rabbit pie.

3/ The food supply chain has changed a lot in 30 years

This entry really shows its age:

I’ll repeat that. She froze leeks in winter, so she could use them in summer.

It says a lot for our understanding of food these days and how far it has become separated from seasonality.  So much for harvesting in season, to eat out of season. 
Now we eat what we want, when we want.

The food miles debate turned up for a bit in the mid nineties and looked like it might return things back to this kitchen -garden idyll. But it proved no match for the forces of globalization. And in any case, in more recent years, the food miles argument has been challenged.


4/ Poussin came served ‘smothered in cottage cheese and butter’

Sounds like a dish out of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, and you’d need the metabolism of a hummingbird to digest it. But this dish was the answer to ‘what to cook for an unexpected supper party’ back then.

Special Abbey trifle? Shrimp n' Hotroot soup? Turnip and Tater Deeper n' Ever Pie? Cottage Cheese & Butter Poussin would have fitted in famously 

5/ Supper parties were never more showy than in the 80s

At dinner parties today, showing off about food is verbal. Just tune into the conversations around the cramped tables at Rok in Shoreditch and you’ll see what I mean.

Have you been to Uchi yet? Is Bellanger the start of the end for Corbin & King?  Will the Clove Club team pull off Italian with their latest foray? Is Sexy Fish ironic good or just bad?

But in the 70s, the food itself did the showing off. Boasting was visible, not audible. Vol au vents. Jugged hare. Curried chicken and ham served in a rice ring.

Those were the days.

 6/ You can build up your cheffy vocabulary 

Agree that showing off about food these days is all talk, but don’t know where to begin?

Simply grab yourself an old recipe book and watch your cheffy vocabulary soar.

This book gives us the following terms that will have your tryabee foodie mates lunging for their Larousse Gastronomique:

A list that would give Fergus Henderson a frisson of excitement.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Restaurant review: The Honours, Edinburgh

You know the bit in The Thick Of It when Glenn Cullen resigns and then rampages round the office, slamming all of his colleagues?

And of special advisor Emma Messinger he says: “You’re just a standard-issue posh bitch. That’s it.”

Well, that’s how I felt about The Honours.

It’s just a standard-issue posh brasserie. That’s it.

Does the job but not very distinctive. An ersatz Corbin & King in a well-heeled part of well-heeled Edinburgh.

The décor is decadent.

The staff are a bit formal.

The food is a bit fussy.

I hate restaurants where you feel you have to stop talking every time a waiter approaches.

It was that kind of place.

The crab served in a martini glass was 90s naff. 

As it was placed before me with hushed importance, I’m almost certain I heard Harry Enfield say, “I am considerably richer than you.” 

This is the restaurant of famed chef Martin Wishart, and I could see that there was good DNA here, deep down.

It’s just a shame they buggered up good ingredients with hackneyed presentation and delusions of grandeur that even the Peaky Blinders would think was a step too far. 

But Jay Rayner loved it. So what do I know? 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Restaurant review: The Sportsman, Whitstable

Eating at the Sportsman is like being invited to dinner by a professor from a John Irving novel, who has a summer house on the shore. (Okay, a professor who has a Michelin star…which might be stretching the plot a little. Even by John Irving’s standards). 

The restaurant is housed in a light, summery old house, perched on a cliff.

The staff, in check shirts and jeans, greet you as if friends.

If you’re on the tasting menu as we were, you’ll arrive with the rest of the 7pm sitting. Ahead of the a la carte diners arriving, it feels a bit like a private party, as everyone bustles through the doors at the same time, removing coats and plunging into drinks and chit-chat at tables.

The restaurant is makeshift and ramshackle – our seats were wicker armchairs with cushions that you sunk into, like cast-offs from a 90s conservatory.

But don’t let the guileless front-of-house fool you. The idiosyncracy is a great bluff of course. Because the food tears out of the kitchen, as low-key as Lady Gaga on Halloween.

It positively demands attention.

Such that you keep breaking off from conversation to utter things like “that is the best oyster I’ve ever tasted” and “that is the Angelina Jolie of attractive plates of food.”

Bread - mostly devoured
Amuse bouche 

The glorious breads of many hues and grains, with bright Seasalter salt crystals in the accompanying butter.

The oysters that arrive on their very own beach of seashells.

The crab, carrot and hollandaise – a reduced crab cocktail in a glass.  A creamy wonder with the taste of the sea shot through it.

The mushroom and celeriac tart, which looked like a dessert and combined the salty tang of the mushrooms with the richness of a raw egg yolk that split and flooded the plate as you sliced into it.  

 The slipsole in seaweed butter - stubbornly simple in presentation and as moreish as it sounds.  

The roast saddle of venison was a well-timed plate of hefty smoky flavour, barging in between the fish dishes and asserting itself.

The bramley apple soufflé with salted caramel ice cream was a tad filling as the finale, but had the desired impact as it arrived at the table, tall and magnificent wearing its coat of icing sugar. 

There’s something about the informality of the surroundings that makes the food seem even more miraculous.  One look at the interesting paintwork in the toilets and you’ll catch my drift. 


The manager did his bit round the tables towards the end of the meal, asking where we came from and what we had enjoyed. He took our praise very modestly - well-used to it I suppose. 

And that's the thing about this restaurant that its many accolades can't really capture. Of course the food is out of this world. But it was the genuine bonhomie, the authentic passion of the whole team for what they're doing here. In this unassuming space down an unassuming lane.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Restaurant review: Marksman, Hackney

“Nice typeface” remarked Sartre, as we stepped in to the Marksman on a rain-lashed Valentine’s evening.

The Marksman’s logo is simply the word, in elegantly understated serif. (There’s a reason I write about food, not typography).

But it was the first clue that the whole Marksman experience would be full of small neat touches, barely perceptible, but just more proper because of it.

In the manner of many London gastropubs, the Marksman is a tale of two halves – downstairs boozer, upstairs dining room.

Although the downstairs looks like a classic East End pub, complete with Victorian oak, antique mirrors and anaglypta wallpaper, we were greeted by a knowledgeable, passionate barman who talked us through the wine list. Which you don’t get at The Carpenters Arms. 

In fact, there’s an easy coexistence here of the old and new. The old pub it was and the new restaurant it wants to be. 

It goes for the cooking – combining classic British recipes with a more modern finesse.

And it goes for the people who come here. Inevitably there were tables of gorgeous Hackney hipsters but there were also blokes having a pint and locals who had been in the area for a lot longer than Noel Fielding and Foxton’s.

After a swift sharpener our table was ready and we went upstairs to the dining room. Upstairs, it’s light, white and rather bright, thanks to long-lead lamps that illuminate each table. It feels like you’re sitting in a show kitchen in the displays bit of an Ikea.  There’s banquette seating mostly against walls, so it feels like you have your own little nook of the dining room.

And what of the food? Well, the first thing to say is, there is nothing that you don’t want to eat on the menu. Which secures your repeat visit for one thing.

The food is traditional British, given a refined twist.

There was a seiorusly moreish, and now semi-famous, beef and barley bun with horseradish cream. Like a British take on a char siu bao. A dish that pleased us for its entire life-cycle. From its alliterative name on the menu, right through to the final bite. The delightfully slightly-chewy soft bun gave way to a rich filling of braised beef and onions, which made Sartre exclaim that it smelt of his Nan’s cooking. In a good way.

We also made short work of two plump oysters with apple and shallots, perched on their own shells for towering impact and as fresh as if you were harbourside at Padstow.

After these snacky morsels, we plunged into our starters. We had the chicory, pickled pear, hazelnut and Harbourne blue cheese salad. This looked pretty as a picture and tasted light, sweet, creamy, textured. I am not very well-endowed in the sweet tooth department, and this could easily pass as a dessert for me – the hazelnut cream would have been delicious atop an apple pie.

The potted pork, pickled carrots and sorrel was my least favourite dish of the night. Succulent and soft on a crispy bit of toast, it was fine, but would have been better for a little more seasoning.

The Arbroath smokie and potato rissoles were a great wallop of peaty smokiness, like a tumbler of Laphroaig in a crispy potato ball. Delicious.

And the Hereford rump, beetroot and horseradish brought us to our knees. The beef was incredibly soft and flavoursome, and almost gamey. It was delicious with the fried potatoes and burnt onion mayonnaise side dish – two great planks of crunchy layered potato.

We were full. But we had heard that the brown butter and honey tart is legend. So we decided to share one and afterwards, bitterly regretted our frugality. We could have easily seen off two of them. This tart is a feat of patisserie prowess that makes me grateful for and resentful towards its creator in equal measure. Never will my pastry look and eat like that, not if I spent the next two years of my life making a tart a day.  There’s a well-balanced, sweet custard that in texture is somewhere better a ganache and a set crème caramel lying, queen-bee like, in a rich brown, crispy pastry.

Coffees and whiskies were taken, before we repaired downstairs to the bar to have a very reasonably priced Negroni (£8) while we waited for our Uber.

At just over £100 for the two of us, a couple of glasses of wine, coffee and a whisky, it’s remarkable value. This might change once the Michelin judges pay a visit. So go soon. And honestly, go when it’s more expensive too. Because it’s worth it.

Marksman is just glorious cooking. A menu packed to the gunnels with things you want to eat, skillfully executed, served with charm, in an inviting kitchen-cum-dining room above a pub.