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Archive for March, 2013

The Amalfi Coast. Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi

Go buy the book

It’s 3pm in Cafe Caldesi Marylebone and most of the lunchers have gone, replete with pasta and, hopefully, a Grappa, to sustain them through the rest of the working day. The staff have put the music up loud enough to power them through their afternoon tasks and at the back of the room, staring sepulchrally into his coffee, is owner Giancarlo Caldesi. His mobile is buzzing like a Vespa going up a steep hill but he ignores it.

Catching sight of me he jumps up and gives me his usual bear hug of welcome and animates as if a switch has been thrown. He now answers the phone, yells out ‘turn the music down!’ in Italian to the staff, and passes me a copy of his and wife Katie’s new book ‘The Amalfi Coast’. Read more…

Carrara at St James

March 18, 2013 1 comment

Bling-tastic

Dinner, a show and the last train home. It’s the perfect evening for many people but one all too often spoilt by panicky clock watching. Theatres don’t hold curtain up just because your dessert’s been delayed or because the waiter, all over you like a cheap suit when you arrived, is now MIA just as you need the bill – and pronto.

Covent Garden and Shaftesbury Avenue around 7pm are packed with pre-theatre diners wandering about in increasing desperation trying to decide where to eat. Many, if not most, are concerned about delays and will opt for a chain serving steaks or burgers. The food may be boring but it’s worth it for the reassurance of speed.

St James, the first purpose-built theatre complex to open in London for 30 years, has a solution; a brasserie downstairs, a restaurant upstairs and shows for all sorts in the theatre space, or the less formal studio, which was where we were headed for some comedy stylings. But first, let’s look at the food.

The restaurant Carrara at St. James is reached by a marble staircase that’s straight out of a rapper or Russian Mafioso’s wet dreams. It’s marble and it is rather magnificent and opens out into a restaurant that’s bright and modern. Open all day it has proper tables with linen napkins and other fancy things that drive young people mad, but that oldies like me rather appreciate. The menu is ‘Modern European’ which is a catch-all and rather meaningless term; what would Old-Fashioned European be? Spit roasted wild boar?

The point is that like a hotel restaurant, Carrara is obliged to offer something for everyone because their customers could be from anywhere. There’s a Pre and Post Theatre Menu – 2 courses for £15.50, 3 courses for £19.50 – which reads pretty, and a full menu with stalwarts such as steak, pasta, spatchcock poussin, calves liver and fish and chips, as well as slightly more exciting stuff like confit duck leg. Well exciting for many out of town arts lovers anyway.

Of the starters we liked the rabbit terrine, a good and chunky slice that went well with the pickled blackberries, a foraged kind of food and something the rabbit himself may well have eaten ( do rabbits eat fruit? Is it part of their 5 a day?). Also noteworthy was the grilled squid which would have been a bit better with clearer seasoning, salt in particular, but the seared scallop with black pudding is a no fail concept and it didn’t here.

For mains P wimped out on by having a steak, the choice of timid diners everywhere, but it was a good steak cooked properly medium rare as asked for and with chips which weren’t ‘triple cooked’ just properly cooked and served in a cutesy mini frying basket. A bit pricey at £22.50 but worth it.

For me there was a confit duck with cannellini bean cassoulet and an orange reduction. The duck had been decently finished so that the skin was crispy and the meat soft. The beans seemed to be dried ones, soaked and cooked, with a good firmness to the bite that you just don’t get with tinned ones – time saving shortcut though they may be.

Rather too many beans on the plate, but you aren’t obliged to eat them all and too much is better than too little I suppose. The orange reduction worked, a duck a l’orange for the modern world. Nothing noteworthy, nothing to get foodies in a froth, but two dishes professionally done and decent value for money. Desserts maintained the middle of the culinary road; a much better than average sticky toffee pudding managed to deliver the expected sugar rush, but didn’t settle on the stomach a like sack of treacle, and the lemon panna cotta was sharp and cleansing.

The ‘studio space’

And so to the show. I know it’s not my remit to be a comedy critic but I liked the studio space and the stage’s intimacy with the audience.  The compere Carl Hutchinson was truly excellent; the stand up, Tommy Rowson  had good material which he tended to fluff by mistiming.  Main act, Jigsaw, was made up of three people flinging out Radio4/Footlights -ish sketches at high speed, some of which worked and many didn’t, but the two men and one woman didn’t seem to care either way. Ned Sherrin would have lapped it up, but I suspect one of the trio will find himself ejected from the act when the other two get down to some pillow talk.

A short walk from Victoria station, well-priced and well-done food pitched at the right level, plus an eclectic range of shows in an ‘off-Broadway’ style, St James should get audiences in abundance.

My name’s Nick Harman, goodnight.

See more of St James upcoming shows

12 Palace Street, London SW1E 5JA www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

The Shed, Notting Hill

Traction

If you only read restaurant reviews on blogs you might think restaurants (good ones that is) didn’t exist west of Regent Street. The blog world has ignored the Pet Shop Boys’ advice and determinedly gone east, although if all the people that claim to live in Hoxton actually did live in Hoxton, the place would have to be the size of Moscow.

The Shed in Notting Hill might not appeal to your average Nouveau East Ender – many of the men eating here are wearing sunglasses on top of their heads, while the girls have the Tiggerish happiness of people not worried about paying the rent on their local flat  – mainly because Daddy does that for them.

There’s a sense too that, when not on the ski slopes, weekends in the country figure strongly on the clientele’s agenda, not least because the decor of the Shed has a rustic vibe delivered in tractor loads, and in fact there’s a tractor bonnet hanging over the bar.

This is quite understandable as the brothers behind the Shed, Richard, Oliver and Gregory Gladwin, grew up at Nutbourne Vineyards near Pulborough in West Sussex and have mud flowing through their veins. It’s a design look that could infuriate some people I suppose but which I find rather soothing. The Shed also lives up to its name by giving the vague impression that it might fall down any second, a state of affairs all good sheds tend to have in common.

With spring light warmly treacling in at the windows the Shed has flung open its end doors to a small terrace, so allowing us smokers to stay in touch with tables made from reclaimed wood and, frankly my dear, old scrap. The waitresses are sunny, the menu is a list of what I like to eat and lunch looks a good bet.

It’s like being at Petersham Nurseries in the good old Skye Gyngell days when, looking like a disconsolate horse, she could often be seen peering out of the kitchen hatch. It’s ‘small plates’ here, but before you throw up your hands at this fashion faux pas remember how much you like tapas and the pleasure of not being stuck with three courses. Brother Oliver is the chef here and his CV shows Oxo Tower and Launceston Place, as well as at River Cottage HQ where Hugh F-W, the West Country version of Jamie, reigns supreme. So that’s okay, then.

The plates average around £8 each, and two per person are recommended but we hummed and hahed because I wanted to try them all. First out of the kitchen came Beef and Red Wine sausage with Shed mustard, a simple dish that relied solely on the quality of the sausage and the mustard to make it work, which it did. The sausage was juicy and with a crisp, snappy skin, while the mustard was a sweet grain type and much better than the Moutarde De Meaux it was based on.

Shed life

A hake, chorizo white beans and wild garlic dish, was straight outta Spain. The grizzled, piquant and slightly chewy chorizo was a perfect foil to the firm hake, while creamy white beans, teetering on the edge of falling apart were laced with lovely spiky shreds of fresh chilli. It was a plate of pure honest gustatory pleasure and I wished I’d ordered two as I fought my wingman’s fork off. This sharing plate idea is okay as long as one of you is less keen on a dish than the other, if not things can get ugly.

We didn’t fight over confit chicken, lemon, soy onions and cauliflower couscous because neither of us liked it all that much. It was fine as far as it went and the balances were well judged, but chicken just doesn’t confit as well as duck, the meat is too tender to begin with and it emerges out the far side with less character than a Liberal MP.

Ah but sweetbreads make me smile, I never remember which part of the lamb they’re cut from, all I know is that I love them. Here they came with a pan-induced golden tan, a luxurious silky texture and with the offaly good flavour that’s reminiscent of bacon. Also reminiscent of bacon was the bacon that came with them, proper bacon that the Shed sources itself from the home farm. Sweetbreads soak up surrounding influences like first year students, so on  a bed of luminous, bitter, kale, the British answer to cavolo nero, and some Jerusalem artichoke it was a real pleasure to eat these. The casual, relaxed presentation belying the lively talent of its creation.

A Magnum Vienneta Parfait for dessert was a rather rich slice of pudding perfection; not too heavy but a belt loosener without the guilt trip.

With cooking that has the flavours, charm and simplicity of a Brawn or a Terroir, and a style that makes you smile despite yourself, The Shed has plenty to recommend it to locals. Even scenesters should find it’s well worth pedaling the single geared bike over to Notting Hill for.

122 Palace Gardens Terrace  Notting Hill, London W8 4RT theshed-restaurant.com

The Malt House Fulham

Sign of the times

I remember coming with my uncle, a dedicated football fan, to what’s now the Malt House back in 1972. It was a popular pub pre-match and I sat outside (in those days children were not allowed to run riot in pubs) and while fighting off pederasts, sucked on my Pepsi and munched my cheese and onion crisps while uncle downed a few pints of beer inside. Then preceded by a gust of pub air – a heady blend of best bitter, Embassy Regal and urinal cake – he took me to the game.

Back then area was a lot less posh of course; in fact it was almost a London suburb. Soon afterwards men who went in for rugby shirts as casual dress and wives in publishing, took over and while there are still pockets of poverty around, check out the flammable tracksuits and gangrenous hoop earrings down the Broadway, it’s generally gentrified.

What my uncle would make of the Malt House now is hard to imagine. It is still technically a pub, but it’s not one where you’d hang around the bar pre-match unless on your way to a corporate box. Tables and eating are the real deal here and the chef is a proper restaurant chef, not a burger slinger. Every bit of wood in the place has been painted cream and the niff of Farrow & Ball is still slightly in the air.

Claude Bosi, he of Hibiscus fame and some infamy, has done to this pub what he and brother Cedric did to the Fox & Grapes in Wimbledon, which is to rather throw the baby out with the bathwater design-wise. It seems a shame to swiftly paint over a patina built up over centuries. but then they’re French. All they probably saw was a smelly old pub with a sticky carpet, not years of glorious British history and hooliganism.

Headless chefs?

But what of the food? Chef Marcus McGuinness has come over from Bosi’s 2 star Hibiscus and the menu occupies the ground between fine dining and what we used to call gastro-pub. Thus a bowl of plump, sea-fresh mussels semi-submerged in an oil-slicked broth was delicately flavoured with wild garlic and teensy-tiny pieces of smoked bacon. One mussel was refusing to grin, so I stuck it on the subs bench, but the rest were perfect and the broth a good reboot of a bistro classic.

J’s curried root vegetable soup arrived as mirepoix cubes, before the waiter poured over the soup in fine-dining stylee. This might have been labelled a puree as it was almost thick enough to stand the crusty bread up in. J liked the fact that the spicing was only in the vegetables so that the soup was a contrast in texture and taste and sparkled with bursts of lime set against honey

My main of roast Cornish cod with celeriac and lovage came in another broth, making it rather too similar to my starter. This could have been mentioned on the menu as you can only drink so much broth. That caveat aside the fish was gorgeous – sweet chunks, bone-free, generous in quantity and cooked properly so that it languidly slid apart down its fault lines when prodded. Celeriac cubes brought in the unique flavour of the world’s ugliest root vegetable; you could imagine it threatening Doctor Who, while the lovage, also a celery flavour, added tonal value and specks of colour.

Simple but elegant

Through the serving window I’d earlier watched the disembodied mid-parts of tattooed chefs slice pork belly from a larger piece, presumably sous-vided, and take it off to be finished. It now arrived glistening with crackling and with a puddle of roasting juices and apple puree lapping at its sides.

J’s first attempt at cutting through the crackling resulted in a noise like a rifle shot, closely followed by the sound of pork fat ricocheting off a far wall. He turned it upside down and found it a lot easier to deal with. Plenty of flavour -packed meat from a happy pig and we shared al dente seasonal purple broccoli plus some triple cooked chips, decently crispy but slightly oddly-flavoured.

And so to pud. A malted vanilla ice cream the shape and almost the size of a rugby ball, with ever so on trend salted caramel, for J, and an excellent forced rhubarb Eton mess for me. This was the best mess I’d had for ages, the tart/sweet rhubarb really shining through against gooey- crispy meringue.

Times change and pubs are dying. Conversion into the sort of place the Bosis have created seems the only way to avoid demolition or conversion into flats. J’s set lunch cost £19.50 and my a la carte, around £30, both easy to digest prices for above average cooking that could easily make this a regular haunt for locals. All in all quite a result for Fulham and clearly premier league stuff.

17 Vanston Pl, Fulham, London SW6 1AY www.malthousefulham.co.uk