Monthly Archives: July 2012

Restaurant Review: Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Source: thehawksmoor.com via Hawksmoor on Pinterest

If top meat and a badass grill are all you need for a decent steakhouse, then Hawksmoor Seven Dials is absolutely superb.

Their Longhorn beef, supplied by The Ginger Pig and dry-aged for a minimum of 35 days, holds the sort of flavour that makes you lose control of bodily functions. Your eyes close, your face contorts to a gurn, and you moan and slobber like a zombie in sight of an attractive blonde named Barbara.

After the first bite, if you’re married, your spouse may ask the question “is that really necessary?” and you know without opening your eyes they’ll be looking at you with a mixture of amusement, embarrassment and scorn. Yet you can’t apologise because to do so would be to tell a lie. This beef is as good as beef gets; a producer of such juicy, voluptuous, carnivorous joy as cannot be described.

If your natural reaction to it is that of a stroke victim having his prostate examined, it’s something you can live with.

Of course the grill has a lot to do with provoking this response as well. I’m used to (and generally prefer) my steak being cooked on a Josper these days, its hellfire heat turning the meat’s exterior into glorious, crispy carbon.

But Hawksmoor’s charcoal-driven beast is just as effective despite its gentler persuasion. Where it can’t match the Josper for texture or retention of juices, it tops it through the flavour it imparts, the woody smoke of the char elevating the beef to even higher heights.

It’s just a pity really that I want my steakhouses to offer a bit more than that.

I’m not quite sure what it was that spoiled my meal at Hawksmoor Seven Dials. I left the restaurant feeling I’d had a fairly enjoyable experience but the more I think about it the more negative my feelings become. Yes, the 900g porterhouse my wife and I shared was awesome, and the bone marrow – wow! What a stunning example it was.* But almost everything else rankled.

First there was our waiter, presumably moonlighting from a job as a payment protection insurance salesman, who was so relentless in his efforts to sell us a starter you’d have thought his children’s lives depended on it.

Then there was the potted beef starter we eventually ordered to get him to go away and its Yorkshire puddings that had something of the Aunt Bessie about them. £8 for a jar of offcut meat, some onions and two circles of poorly risen batter – the beef was excellent but I didn’t feel like we got our money’s worth.

With the mains we had mushrooms: flaccid rounds of soot black which’d had all the life sweated out of them. They tasted of nothing at all. We had triple-cooked chips too – not the beef dripping chips we’d actually ordered – and they were so dry and saturated with fat they could’ve been used for kindling.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these had been cooked from frozen,” I said, after trying a couple. They really were poor.

Even the steak couldn’t escape criticism, my wife declaring it to be too salty. I have a high tolerance for salt and thought the seasoning, while high, was just about acceptable. But she felt it really spoilt it.**

It was a while before we were able to attract a waiter’s attention, get them to clear the table and present us with the bill. The cost of brilliant steak and bone marrow, a decent bottle of wine and a fair dollop of disappointment was around £180, which didn’t feel the best value. Our outstanding a la carte lunch at The Ledbury the following day was only about £40 more expensive, to put it in context.

I think on the whole I actually prefer my local Gaucho to Hawksmoor Seven Dials. And that’s certainly not something I was expecting to say going in. While Gaucho’s steaks don’t bear comparison with Hawksmoor’s, they offer a far more complete experience than we got on this London visit. Through half a dozen meals I’ve never had a complaint about any of their side dishes.

Afterwards I took to Twitter to say the beef had been great but Hawksmoor is Championship standard versus the Premier League of Goodman. On reflection, given that Goodman Mayfair gave us a faultless steakhouse experience when we visited last year, I’d suggest the gulf is far bigger than that.

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Food: 14.5/30

Service: 7/10

Dining Room: 2.5/5

Experience: 6.5/10

Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)

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*Thanks to fellow blogger Mrs Petticoat (@MrsPetticoat) for the bone marrow recommendation.

**There were other irritations too, although once I hit my stride I think I just started being picky. As such, I’ll just mention them here in the footnotes:

The dining room reminded of the hall where I used to sit my music theory exams albeit with much poorer lighting conditions. Tables were heavily regimented and if the room hadn’t been packed I think it would’ve felt very cold. It was certainly buzzing and I reckon a lot of people probably like the stripped back, casual look they’ve gone for, but it wasn’t a room I personally felt comfortable in.

I also felt the steak knife looked cheap and rubbish. I know it’s only a small thing, but when I went to Goodman and saw the knives they have I thought “this is a place that means business”. At Hawksmoor Seven Dials the cutlery reminded me of a Beefeater, in that I immediately thought “even Beefeaters have better knives than this”. It didn’t make quite the same first impression.

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Hamper Review: Forman and Field

As a food blogger, even one as insignificant as me, PR firms are always lining up to give you something free in exchange for publicity.

More often than not what I get offered is crap. Only a few weeks ago I said “no thank you” to representatives of a well-known, cheap food brand, whose most popular product I blame for a spectacular bout of food poisoning suffered last year.

Perhaps they misunderstood where I was coming from with Foods To Try Before You Die, read it as some sort of cuisine-themed suicide note. “We’ve made him violently ill before so he’ll love this!”

At the very least I’m certain they hadn’t bothered to read any of my posts. I know not every item on The List fits into the luxury category but the lack of budget ready meals really should’ve been a clue. Economy supermarket is not the undiscovered niche I’m looking for.

So I must say it was refreshing to be asked to review a hamper by the folks at gourmet food retailer Forman and Field, a company much more in-keeping with the quality focus of my blog. I hadn’t tried any of their wares before but I had been on their website and liked what I saw. Indeed, in the early days of The List, when it was basically just an offline Word document with pictures, porchetta was listed as an item solely off the back of seeing it on Forman and Field’s site. I thought it looked awesome so on there it went.*

Thus when I was asked to review one of the company’s hampers my answer was a bit of a no-brainer. “Why yes. Yes I would.”

I was a little surprised by the quality of everything as I rummaged through the picnic basket. I’d expected luxury but I hadn’t expected the very best. Cheese (Stichelton, Innes Log, Berkswell and Ardrahan) was from Neal’s Yard, a supplier of Michelin-starred restaurants up and down the country. Smoked salmon was from H. Forman & Son**, a century-old pioneering producer, as reputable as you can find. The pork pie was Mrs King’s, arguably the finest Melton Mowbray in existence.

I couldn’t wait to dig in.

The banana bread was the first to go, scoffed down with a mug of tea. Moist and flavourful with a faultless crumb, it was a WI award winner if ever there was one. A similarly good chocolate brownie, the greatest pork pie I’ve ever had and some cheese in immaculate condition followed. It was a strong start.

The next day I tried Paul Wayne Gregory’s tea-infused chocolates and they were what you’d expect from an award-winning chocolatier: texturally perfect. The lapsang souchong wasn’t really to my tastes and the Earl Grey flavour was perhaps too subtle but the jasmine in the middle was “just right”. My wife made the obvious Goldilocks joke.

Potted lobster was enjoyable on rye bread toast though, if I’m honest, I expected a little more from it. They weren’t stingy with the lobster and there was nothing wrong with the cooking but I spent the entire time wishing it was potted shrimp instead. Given my favourite shellfish-based spread is much cheaper, I don’t see why anyone would bother buying this.

Regardless, I’d say the Alderton ham was perhaps the only bit that was sub-par. It was very nice ham, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be confident I could take a 20-minute walk down the road and find something better. I genuinely couldn’t say that about anything else – certainly not the smoked salmon. The London cure was up there with the best I’ve tasted; the wild vastly superior. I took to Twitter to say I’d never eaten anything better in my own home, and I wasn’t lying. It was divine.

Afterwards I had the lemon curd, which was never going to compete, but was excellent nonetheless. I made it into a little tart with a base of crushed digestive biscuits and later vowed that I should eat lemon curd more often. It was delicious.

Here’s what was in the box, with pictures.

Genuine Wild and London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon (H. Forman & Son)

London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon

Wild Smoked Scottish Salmon

Potted Lobster (Forman & Field)

Chocolate Brownie and Banana Bread (Forman & Field)***

Lemon Curd (Forman & Field)

Hand Carved Ham (Alderton Ham)

Pure Indulgence Chocolates (Paul Wayne Gregory)

Tea-infused chocolates (left to right): Earl Grey, jasmine, lapsang souchong

Pork Pie (Mrs King’s)

Selection of Dairy Cheeses (Neal’s Yard)

Innes Log – unpasteurised goat’s milk

Berkswell – unpasteurised sheep’s milk

Stichelton – unpasteurised cow’s milk

Ardrahan – pasteurised cow’s milk

Overall I was very impressed with the hamper sent to me by Forman and Field. The food was all extremely high-end and I think it’d be difficult to find better quality in your local area, even at specialist shops or farmers’ markets. Certainly assembling produce this good on your own would take a lot of time.

One thing that’s put me off buying food online in the past is concern over freshness. How many days before this was posted was it packed? Is it going to be stale or past its best? I’d look on something like Maldon Rock oysters as pure food poisoning bait, and why pay for a stomach bug when there’s a company out there willing to send me one for free?

But I think, based on the evidence of the cheese (the biggest freshness test), I would trust Forman and Field to send me just about anything. Apparently cut on the same day the hamper was posted, it was in better condition than any cheese I’ve had outside a Michelin star restaurant.

And I can’t praise it much higher than that.

Visit Forman and Field

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*As you can see, I eventually took porchetta off The List when I decided to make it exclusively about food that I’d genuinely be disappointed not to try in my lifetime, rather than just stuff that I liked the look of. But I would still like to try it.

**H. Forman & Son is linked to Forman and Field, so I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by that one.

***I forgot to take a picture of the chocolate brownie. Sorry.

 

Restaurant Review: Koya

“It’s only a noodle bar,” the bemused builder shouted from down the street. “Who the hell queues to get in a noodle bar anyway?”

As I stood outside Koya, hoping the line of people wasn’t so long that it’d fill the tiny dining room completely before I managed to get a seat, I wondered the same thing. Everyone appeared sober and the place didn’t seem to sell kebabs. It was 5.28pm on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening and my Salfordian brain couldn’t fathom what was going on. Does nobody watch Neighbours in Soho?

We got seats but only just. The two foreign language students who sat next to us were the last customers through the door before people started getting turned away. It was now 5.31pm and the restaurant had been open for exactly one minute.

“It must be good if it’s this popular,” my wife whispered across the table. “I hope so,” was my reply.

Things got off to a strong start with some tempura – two large prawns with an array of vegetables, including courgette and sweet potato. Some of the veg was underdone and I would’ve liked more flavour from the prawns, but tempura lives and dies by the quality of its batter and this most definitely lived. It was the sort of batter you always hope for but so rarely get; ultra crisp yet exceptionally light. I was picking at the scraps long after the prawns and veg had been consumed.

I took time out from scrap picking to take this fascinating picture, which I call ‘the tempura aftermath’

My wife enjoyed her opener too: a special of duck, poached and served sliced in a cold broth. In most noodle bars this was would be a disgusting dish – low-quality meat in a cloying, pond water sauce. But at Koya it was serene and refreshing; a nice bit of duck, carefully cooked, submerged in a delicate stock. I was very impressed.

Unfortunately, the meal was about to take a bit of a downward turn, and it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. Carried away with the starters, I’d forgotten that I had absolutely no idea how to eat noodles with chopsticks. No idea, even, where to begin. My buta miso hiya-atsu arrived, I looked down at the two pieces of wood and the little spoon that had come with it, and thought to myself: “How the hell am I meant to get this food out of the bowl and into my mouth?”

Regrettably, my ignorant brain went into solution mode:

Right… I need an expert to show me what to do, fast… someone Japanese, I don’t trust these gajin… OK, there’s one in the corner – just watch… fuck me, look how high up she’s holding the chopsticks… mad skills… she’ll do… right, what precisely is she doing…  looks like she finds the end of the noodle first, then she lifts it completely out of the broth… seems easy enough, I can do that – what next… OK, so she drops the noodle down gently on the spoon and then circles it round into a neat little pile… that looks pretty easy too – not much to this so far… now for the eating pa… eww, I did not see that coming… I would’ve thought that was bad manners… did she really slurp it…. yes, she really slurped it… she’s still supporting it with the chopsticks but she’s definitely just sucking it into her mouth… well, I guess I best follow suit… when in Ro…

“How the hell are you meant to eat these?” my wife hissed across the table.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” I said confidently. “I’ve been watching that woman over there. She seems to know what she’s doing. Think I’ve got the technique down, so just follow my lead…”

OK, my turn… the wife’s looking to you for guidance on this, so don’t mess it up… first things first – find the end of a noodle… hmmm… no, that’s not one… that’s not one either… where do the ends of noodles live… I can’t find one anywhere, this is trickier than I thought… I wonder if the noodles in my bowl even have ends, they just seem to be made entirely of mi… aha! …got one… we’re cooking on gas now… easy street… right, time for stage two of the operation – this’ll be a cinch… lift the noodle from the bowl… OK, no need to panic, I’m just still lifting it from the bowl… and STILL lifting from the bowl… are my noodles longer than hers, I think they’re longer than hers… still lifting… I’m going to run out of arm in a minute, bloody hell… OK, no worries, here we go… nearly there… get the spoon ready…

***SPLASH!***

…what the fuck was that, where’s my noodle gone… it was there one minute and now it’s… oh my god, I think it broke under its own weight and went back in the bowl… what a splash that was… must’ve fallen about a foot… am I wet… no, I’m not wet… oh shit, are the customers sat next to me wet… no, thank god – they don’t seem to have noticed… has anyone noticed… oh great, the wife has… she’s pissing herself laughing…

There were three more unsuccessful attempts to copy the Japanese lady before I gave up and developed my own highly inefficient technique. The illusion that nobody had noticed the splashing was shattered when the customers next to us asked if they could move to a different table, shooting me a disgusted look as they got up to go. I don’t think they wanted to be my friend.

Buta Miso Hiya-Atsu: cold udon noodles in a hot broth with pork and miso paste

The udon noodles – when I finally got them into my mouth – were excellent and I loved the broth they came in. I couldn’t quite get over the pork and miso paste looking like the poo of an ill dog and I felt it spoiled the flavour of the stock the more it filtered in. But by this stage of the meal I’d more or less forgotten about the food and was thinking more about what a tit I’d made of myself. Oh well.

I arrived at Koya looking for a top cheap eat in the West End and I think I found one. It reminded me a little bit of Yuzu in Manchester, an oriental hidden gem doing food far better than a lot of restaurants twice the price. Of course with its Michelin Bib Gourmand and Observer Food Monthly awards Koya’s already well-discovered, but the feeling of a small kitchen punching above its weight is the same.

I would love to go back and try the tempura again. I may give the noodles a miss!

(Thanks to Hungry Hoss for the recommendation.)

 
Koya on Urbanspoon

Food: 10/30

Service: 5/10

Dining Room: 2.5/5

Experience: 7/10

Overall score: 45/100 (Good)

Restaurant Review: The Ledbury

Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.

Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.

So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.

“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.

I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.

They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.

A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.

The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.

Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.

The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.

My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.

Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”

Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.

I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.

Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.

Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!

It’s the little things that make life so great.

With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.

In my experience, this restaurant is as good as any in London. I have the feeling that it’s only going to get better. So go once and then keep going back. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Food: 28.5/30

Service: 9.5/10

Dining Room: 4.5/5

Experience: 9.5/10

Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)

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*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.

**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.

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