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Archive for August, 2013

Fish Market restaurant, London

16B, New Street London EC2M 4TR www.fishmarket-restaurant.co.uk

The D & D restaurants are all a bit different in style, but all seem to aim at being somewhere to rely on, whether it’s towards the high end at Cog d’Argent or a little bit touristy like the Butlers Wharf Chop House.  Fish Market seems to be swimming right in the middle.

Occupying a part of the last of Devonshire Square’s ancient spice and storage warehouses to be converted, Fish Market is one of the more recent additions to the D & D portfolio of restaurants. There are at least twenty five of these in London, which must make them one of the most successful groups around, that is if you don’t count all the burger bandwagons.

It’s nicely placed to catch people passing down the lane to Devonshire Square’s main entrance and offers a menu that navigates unsurprisingly toward the fish side. But if you wanted a steak you wouldn’t have sat down in the first place.

Some rather steep stairs; there is a lift for the differently abled, lead from the patio to the main room which is decked out in a way that may resemble a trawler’s dining room, if I knew what one looked like. It’s certainly semi-industrial, as befits an old warehouse, and thankfully does not have any nets on the wall containing badly painted wooden fish or glass floats.

We decided to sit on the terrace though. D&D have covered this in large umbrellas, figuring not unreasonably that rain is never far away. This is fine but the clouds have gathered a bit and together with the black umbrellas have drained so much light from the area that I can’t even see J across the table, let alone the menu. The clouds soon move on though and it becomes visible.

There’s rather a lot to choose from and to make matters more difficult, there’s a specials board too. The latter is a good idea as fish availability can change so rapidly, but even so it’s from the main menu that we decide to eat with its range from fish finger sandwiches to a big old seafood (s) platter.

Salt and pepper squid, roast garlic and chilli catches my eye. It’s a dish I love, and while I know it won’t be as good as you get in Vietnamese restaurants, I want it still. As it turns out, and turns up, this isn’t a bad stab at all with the squid crispy and a decent mayonnaise to dunk it in. The bit that fails is the chili, instead of being fresh it’s semi dried and gets caught in the teeth. It doesn’t deliver the crunch and burn it should.

J has the Kedgeree Scotch egg, toasted almond and rocket salad which he reckons is fine, the egg golden and not grey and the fish assertive but not looking for a fight. It’s a good dish for this kind of place, reasonably filling, reasonably just behind the trend and reasonably priced.

We’re trying hard to not have battered cod and chips for mains, as it seems everyone else already is, but it looks so good resistance is getting a bit futile. Ever mindful of my svelte figure I do something odd and order steamed haddock. Now steamed fish is something that forever cries out ‘hospital food’ to me, but the mention of a poached egg on top drugs me into ordering it.

It’s much better than expected; the very fresh fillet has been curled onto its side to give it more plate appeal and the steaming has plumped it like a hospital pillow. When the perfectly cooked egg breaks over it there are good mouthfuls to be had with silky, subtle chives in a cream lapping at the base. I actually feel pretty virtuous eating it, not a feeling one normally gets in a restaurant.

J has also beaten the battered cod craving but has cheated by going for roast cod instead. It’s a mighty hunk of fish with the skin fried before it went into the oven so it has a good golden glow and crispness. Pea puree has been ‘skidded’ onto  the plate, which makes it look as if the fish only narrowly avoided shooting off the far side, but pea and cod go together well that this slightly retro presented dish is no car crash.

New potatoes for J and chips for me, the latter to undo any good work that eating healthily steamed fish has done. Not bad chips either, not as crispy as they could be despite being fashionably thrice cooked, but very edible nonetheless. When did chip shops ever serve crisp chips anyway?

And so to pud, but in fact we didn’t have any. Sometimes even we feel a little full. Verdict? No nonsense, sound cooking and well-priced especially the set menu. It feels a bit like a chain place and it isn’t fine dining, but it’s still smart and relaxed. It’s busy and certainly suits local office workers and those on lower budgets who don’t want to go somewhere where they have to eat artery-busting blogfood. Overall Fish Market maintains D&D’s rep for getting it right and being reliable and I make it my catch of the week.

Photographs from D&D website
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elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food at Somerset House

I never ate at elBulli; I’d hazard a guess you never did either. The clientele seemed to be almost exclusively food writers for glossy consumer magazines and the trade press. And yet you almost certainly have eaten something inspired by a dish or technique that originated at elBulli. Like Vivien Westwood dresses, few people actually wear them but they do wear the clothes that derive from them.

elBulli wasn’t always a gourmet Mecca (by the way if you want to have real food cred you should know it’s pronounced El Buwee). Back in the 1960s it was just a bar serving drinks for patrons of the local golf course and run by a German, but a German with characteristically, a master plan.

He wanted a great restaurant and he hired good people and in 1984 Ferran Adrià, until then just one of the staff, was promoted to joint chef and the elBulli story began proper. It was a story that would lead to domination of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards.

Adrià would perhaps be still winning except he chose to close, perhaps recognising that everyone gets knocked off their perch eventually and it’s always best to jump. Nowadays the cooking of Scandinavia tends to dominate those awards, with the focus not so much on the laboratory as what chef can find in a skip or under a stone. Fashion in food is fickle and journalists need new things to be the first to discover and champion.

But with this major London exhibition, Adrià has his place in history assured. His maxim of creativity, not copying, can be seen in its gestation and finally its triumph as you wander through the rooms, with food becoming a concept and experience.

The way elBulli is talked about can all be a bit pretentious but anyone who has sat through Adrià’s conversation, he always says far too much and in far too long bursts for the translator to ever keep up, knows that he has more of a sense of humour than the curators of this show are prepared to admit, although they do include Matt Groening’s, the creator of The Simpsons, portrait of Adrià which raises a much needed laugh.

The artefacts from elBulli are in glass cases, as if they were flint headed arrows from the Bronze Age. Kitchen tools like Pacojet are exhibited, but as you can buy such things in the shops, their value comes from where they have been. And did those hands in ancient times walk these machines?

You can see elBulli’s collection of plasticine ‘food’, used to design the presentation and to be referred to for consistency. The strange and wonderful serving plates which, placed under glass and without food, begin to have the rather macabre look of instruments from a Victorian hospital.

It’s a well curated, imaginatively laid out exhibition with excellent use of audio visual. The sombre lighting and the glass cases however can make you forget that this is actually about food, something which should be joyous and flooded with light and laughter.

This can be remedied by going afterwards to the terrace where you can drink the beer of one of the sponsors, Estrella, who have teamed up with Ferran and brother Albert to have their recipes on the side of 4 packs of bottles of Estrella Damm.

It seems an extraordinary tie up, one that if done by Gordon Ramsay would earn him hisses and boos from the food community, but in this case they seem to be politely averting their gaze. Adrià still has a lot of clout and is rumoured to have a new restaurant in the pipeline and no one wants to be on the black list for that.

elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food runs at Somerset House until 29 September 2013

Daily 10.00-18.00 (last entry 17.15), until 21.00 Thursdays (last entry 20.15)except 26 Sept
Embankment Galleries West, South Wing
£10 (£8 concessions), £5 on Mondays (excluding Bank Holidays)

The Dysart Arms

135 Petersham Rd  Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AA www.thedysartarms.co.uk

I’ve walked past the Dysart Arms lots of times over the years on my way to Petersham Nursery, not that I’d go to that place now, not since Skye Gyngell left. Her long face looking out of the kitchen window like a disconsolate horse was never very cheering but the food was always interesting, if hellishly overpriced. Now it’s just hellishly overpriced..

The Dysart Arms is an old arts and crafts style pub that’s a pub no longer. Like so many it found it couldn’t survive on beer alone and so has changed hands and gone gourmet. A resulting internal refurb suffers a bit from the curse of Farrow & Ball, but they’ve resisted the temptation to paint absolutely everything cream. This means that it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in branch of Daylesford Organic, a place that sends me into a frenzy of hatred even just thinking about it.

Large flagstones, naked wood tables, grand fireplaces and original leaded windows all create a feeling of cosiness. To add to the happiness  the sun is streaming in ‘like butterscotch’ (thank you Joni)  while the staff are breezing efficiently about and helping me chase wasps back out the window as I have a pathetic fear of wasps. The set menu is a very reasonable £19.95 for three courses, but we’ve heard head chef  Kenneth Culhane is a bit good, a Roux scholar no less, so we hit the a la carte to see if the kitchen can cut it.

Little pre-nibbles that are, in young people’s eyes as naff as napkins and cutlery, are quite excellent, as is the soda bread. We wolf these down and wait for starters proper which immediately set our happy bells ringing when they arrive.

My veal sweetbread is exquisitely cooked, a little crusty on the outside and billowing on the inside. A black truffle vinaigrette blows heavenly wafts across the palate, while fresh almonds deliver a contrapuntal punch. The juices are dribbled and smeared, which again some people dislike seeing but remains the best way of making plates look good while spreading flavours around.

P has scallops, perhaps not on the surface an exciting choice but the squid ink dumplings, are clever and texturally interesting and deliver a colour contrast while the scallops themselves are well seared, plump and fresh. An insolia veloute comes as foam, again a bit old hat for some but it does deliver the flavours very efficiently to the taste buds even if it isn’t fashionable.

Service is relaxed but they know which dishes we are having, this may seem oxymoronic but  it’s surprising how many good restaurants still do the embarrassing plate shuffle at table when all it takes is a decent memory, or even a piece of paper, to get it right first time.

P’s main is a visual stunner, so much so that  I feel compelled to get the camera out again, but we are in a spot that’s clear of other customers and I am quick as a flash (without a flash).

The iridescent green of the herbal kaffir lime and green chilli sauce is hallucinogenic and sets off the beautifully crisped stone bass on its bed of sweet and nutty celeriac very well. P reports that the whole dish tastes sublime; so it’s not all presentation there is real method at work here as well, but then of course you’d expect no less from anyone who’s been in spatula range of a Roux.

My Wiltshire Heritage beef had been treated with loving respect so as to be properly pink and well rested. With this kind of quality ingredient you really just have to exercise old fashioned skill and resist the temptation to rush.

With my expert eye I quickly identified beetroot on the plate, then checking the menu discovered it was in fact heritage carrot, carrots once always being purple until the comparatively recent orange variety took over. Cut into disks and batons the carrot had the sweetness of old that got rather bred out along with the colour and so was captivating. The flavour of the meat set against the miso mustard sauce, rather an inspired sauce I felt, and the dusty sourness of sumac, one of my favourite spices was excellent.

As with my starter I was drinking the recommended bottled beer not wine, in this case a Goose Island IPA, and it was a revelation just how enjoyable a craft beer can be with well-crafted food. The joy of being able to take a good swallow, and not just sip, can’t be overstated.

We shared a Valrhona Jivra chocolate and praline bar partnered with fashionable salted caramel ice cream and grue de caco for dessert. I am not much for sweet things and I don’t really ‘get’ salted caramel, but this was again an elegant and enjoyable dish. Even better was the selection of cheeses, small but perfectly chosen and perfectly ripe.

Days before going to the Dysart Arms I was referring to it as the Dyson Arms. God knows why, because, as we found, it certainly doesn’t suck. See what I did there? Ah comedy. Seriously though, best lunch of the year, hands down.

Mango Tree and Pan Chai at Harrods

87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7XL  www.harrods.com

‘That fish is extremely rare, those three are on the endangered list and this one here is extinct as of ten minutes ago.’ The man itemising the fish on our sushi/sashimi platter didn’t really say that, but with the cost of the board coming in at £120 for two it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if he had.

You don’t eat cheap in Harrods Food Halls; from steaks to sashimi the prices make your eyes water and the water isn’t cheap either. It’s the kind of spending excess that makes dreadlocked white kids put wheelie bins through the windows of banks before heading off to pay £11 for a gourmet burger.

Looking at the menus at both Mango Tree, and its partner opposite Pan Chai, there is nothing that could be called averagely priced and yet at both places not only is every stool occupied there are people patiently queuing for their chance to whip out their wads. They are mostly tourists, many are Chinese and all are obviously not short of a bob or two.

It’s an unusual spot to have lunch, the Harrods Food Hall. It’s always a frantically busy place and there are no tables at almost all the food outlets, instead you eat at a bar. Why don’t people wander off to find somewhere cheaper, less crowded in the area? The answer is probably to do with comfort zones. Well-heeled tourists feel safe in Harrods, whereas walking the mean streets of Knightsbridge might feel a bit edgy.

There is no point moaning about the prices though; after all if you can’t afford to pay you shouldn’t have sat down. So J and I barely turn a hair when at Mango Tree we find six dim sum priced at £30 (including a bowl of Tom Yum soup), instead we just adopt an insouciant pose and raise our glasses of £15 champagne to two girls who are eyeing us up as possible sugar daddies. Luckily they cannot see my TK Max trainers.

Is the food any good? Well chef in charge for MT Harrods and Pan Chai is Ian Pengelley, who is also chef at the gigantic Gilgamesh in Camden, and he’s a seasoned Western Thai pro. I’ve always liked his food and style and here he has a top team and a budget for the best ingredients.

The Tom Yum soup is rich and fiery just as it should be, four plump prawns are playing submarines at the bottom and shimeji mushrooms are patrolling the surface. I’ve had lots of Tom Yums and this is as good as the best I’ve had, at least in the UK. Coughing on the chilli does not help with our insouciant poses, though.

The dim sum, a plate of fried and plate of steamed are very good, although I am no expert on dim sum.  I know what I like and let somebody else count the pleats. From the steamed selection the foie gras and scallop is quite divine and the prawn and chive also excellent.

We eat everything in two bites each, dunking in the soy sauce in between to eke out the pleasure. From the fried selection I especially like the juicy prawn entwined in a bird’s nest of fried noodle, the mix of crunch and yielding flesh is perfect. Duck spring roll is rich and filling and the taro and chicken croquette also stood out.

Over at Pan Chai dry ice is steaming away on our fish platter and you half expect a bloke playing a twin-necked guitar to appear out of it. The sushi and sashimi are all beautifully ‘plated’ and while I soon lose track of what is actually on the platter the menu reminds me: Foie gras, sea urchin, salmon, tuna belly, sea bass, tuna, salmon roe, grilled eel, jumbo sweet shrimp, scallop, yellow tail, tamago and  spicy salmon roll. The fresh wasabi is just hot enough to spike without making my nose explode.

Each chopstick tweezered piece demands slow contemplation, as you are metaphorically sucking on a £5 note. Service is discreet yet cheerful which is can’t be easy as some of the rich diners act very brusquely indeed.

You can if you want eat a bit cheaper at both places with some menu savvy, although don’t go for the Wagyu beef curry unless you have £60 to spare.

And while some will say you can get cheaper, and arguably better, versions of all this in Soho, well the answer is of course you probably can but that’s really not the point. Just about everything in Harrods costs more than it would anywhere else; it’s not Bluewater after all.

If you have a burning desire to spend some serious cash in what must be the most iconic store in the world, and you want to get something very decent and decadent for your money, then pull up a stool at either Mango Tree or Pan Chai and adopt a happy smile