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Lounge Lover, Shoreditch

Art love

Lounge Lover is not a restaurant, the restaurant, Les Trois Garcons, is next door. This means that you’d best not turn up hungry because, frankly, you’re going to leave hungry too and quite possibly succumb to the lure of the chippy on the way home.

But of course you can tell this by looking at the menu; the food occupies two pages and the cocktail list about fourteen so you don’t have to be a genius to see where the focus lies. This place is a lounge, that non-U word for a sitting room, and here the idea is to relax on the gloriously mismatched but oh so desirable furniture and take on board a few drinks.

While doing this you can marvel at the decoration, everything from old French grandfather clocks to a rhino’s head stuffed and mounted and shot in mid roar – what do Rhinos need those enormous teeth for? Aren’t they vegetarians?

In general Lounge Lover looks like the interior of Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann’s mind, a riot of camp, colour and devil may care eccentricity with small private rooms tucked exotically away off the main drag. As my pal A says, and he’s been around, ‘notice how everything is portable? If this place ever went under about the only thing they’d have to leave for the receivers is the paint on the walls.

That’s unlikely to happen, the three chaps who own this, the restaurant, the coffee shop nearby and a chateau hotel in France, know what they’re doing. They set up Les Trois Garcons and Lounge Lover back when this area was a bit dodgy; now the locals are generally richer than the customers. But there is much more competition too, in what was a bit of a food and drink wasteland you can find any number of cool hangouts for the new media types.

Lounge Lover still impresses though, a place to slide into at night for some drinks and nibbles and the nibbles are what we are here for. Even so we order cocktails – after ten minutes hopeless gazing I end up just picking at random, perhaps subliminally influenced by its name ‘A bit on the side’. Why can’t they just number cocktails? I remember the shame of ordering a ‘Slow comfortable screw up against the wall’ back in the 80s and it doesn’t get any better as you get older.

So to the food, the nibble menu’s divided up into raw, cured, fried and sweet and so we take a punt on Codfish ceviche with Swedish marinade, seeing as how ceviche is still fashionable and I like it anyway. It comes on crispy endive leaves and is as good as ceviche gets. The Swedish marinade is a bit of a mystery, what would Swedes use? Crispbreads? But overall we find they slip down fast and easy.

A trio of burgers appear next. Now I’m no fan of burgers, not when so many are bigger than your head and a sloppy mess, but mini ones I can get along with. Duck and cucumber archad, Venison & lingonberry

Madonna sat here, apparently

Aged rump and foie gras are the act here served in mini brioche buns. Again brioche buns are usually very horrid things to serve a full sized burger in, but here their sweetness balances the meats well. It’s not safe to say too much about foie gras, there are a lot of people out there who are simply gagging to stuff up anyone who dares say they like it, but it was good. Best burger is the venison, the berry being classic accompaniment. I have no idea what archad is, sorry.

Sweet potato fries come with a bi curious dip of crème fraiche and chilli sauce, these fries are really rather good and a welcome change from potato chips whether thrice fried or not, while a bowl of battered squid with cumin, red chilli and fresh lime zap is a bit odd as the squid isn’t battered at all. However it is well cooked otherwise, as soft as a politician’s handshake as pliant as one of their policies. The zap lives up to its name and makes me cough. We order more cocktails, try to look sophisticated and order Shoashin braised pork belly with

Nordic apple plunge. The plunge is a kind of applesauce, but full marks for its name, which sounds far more exciting. The belly is taut as a six-pack, the collagens well broken down. It has enough chewiness to make it interesting to chew and applesauce and pork is a no brainer success.

It’s getting a bit dark and LL’ s real clientele are showing up, party people; you can tell the place comes into its own as the night gets old. But we are actually old so we order fresh hot donuts with three dipping sugars dill, cardamom and cinnamon and prepare to leave. The donuts are squidgy and small, which suits us fine, and the cardamom makes an unusual contrast to the sugary sweetness, almost rendering the doughnuts savoury.

We are still a bit peckish but make it home without kebabbing it. Lounge Lover is not a restaurant but the food isn’t bar food either, it’s a place for classy supper post fun and it’s certainly somewhere different and pleasant to put your feet up for a while.

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Trying the tapa de ancho at Gaucho

Raw and ready

Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather different.  Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t’ the kind of place to take Morrissey for a snack.

Always nicely dark inside, you fall over the furniture a lot until your eyes adjust, it also benefits from an excellent Argentinian wine list. At a time when one rather suspected South America was dumping their inferior wines on the UK, the wine list at Gaucho was and remains a taste of what’s really available if you know where to look.

Of course the snobbier foodies never ‘got’ Gaucho, they dismissed it as too downmarket, it wasn’t properly connected to the right people in the right places, and it it was suspected that it might even harbour right wing tendencies, what with it being Argentinean and all. But Gaucho has got on with the task, serving up steaks to the masses and doing a good job of it, Gauchos now litter the pampas of London and remain popular with ordinary everyday folk looking for a reliably decent bit of steak any day of the week. Hearing of a new menu, we herded ourselves into the Swallow Street branch for a look see. Read more…

Trying the tapa de ancho at Gaucho

Raw and ready

Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather different.  Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t’ the kind of place to take Morrissey for a snack. Read more…

15 Westland Place, Shoreditch, London, N1 7LP www.fifteen.net

We do a lot of terrible things for charity us liberals; we buy dusters at ten times the going rate from shell suited, fast talking, wide boys at our door, we pretend to find the Big Issue a Good Read and we eat at Jamie’s 15.

Jamie’s 15 was perhaps the worst restaurant I ate in during 2007; the food was rubbish and overpriced, the tables smeared from wipes with filthy rags and the staff indolent and insolent. Jamieland souvenirs were being sold to gullible Americans and out of towners and the champagne socialists of North London were grimly eating as if it was their last ‘supper’. I didn’t go back and swore I never would, despite the obvious good intentions of the place.

But then a press release arrived saying that all had changed, there had been a design revamp and a bright new chef put in place. Gone was the dodgy Italian menu and in its place a British seasonal one had landed. That, and the fact that the area had changed its demographic since 2007, was enough to lure me back for lunch and a look see.

The City Road hasn’t changed much though, it’s still one of the noisiest, most brain-damaging traffic heavy streets in London, but Old Street tube station has moved on. Purged are the tramps and winos, now young people working in New Media throng through, all dressed the same and sporting self-satisfied expressions that say ‘I am here, I am in the centre of everything hip. I don’t work at a desk, I work in a space.’

Not many of them in Jamie’s 15 though, but then he’s probably old enough to be their dad, instead the 30 something bosses of those New Media companies fill the tables looking sharp in Gap. There’s an open kitchen at one end with a hunky looking pizza oven, although there appear to be no pizzas on the menu, and the feel is far more attractive than before. The tables and glasses are clean for one thing and the bar looks inviting.

The menu from chef, and mate of Jamie, Jon Rotheram is full of stuff I want to eat, but concise enough not to induce a headache of indecision. Jon’s time at St John is evident but this is not a clone, his own ideas are strong and only the focus on seasonal, simplicity and quality is carried through.

The dishes are for sharing, which is a concept I’m never very happy about being an only child, and it’s not always practical. How do you share a broth? With two straws? Not wanting to re-enact The Lady and the Tramp, we passed on that one.

Asparagus and courgette fiercely roasted in that pizza oven and topped with a gloriously glowing egg, was easier to share once the egg had been burst and stirred through. The ‘grass was crisp, the egg exemplary but where was the advertised truffle? No sign nor scent of it.

Pink Fir, Lincolnshire Poacher and wild garlic was fill your face gorgeous; Pink Fir, along with Ratte, are the best potatoes in the world for serving simply boiled or steamed  and the gummy, tangy  puddle of cheese clung to each piece tenaciously with the slight whiff of the wild garlic shooting through. We called for bread to mop up every last sticky bit of it.

And then there was Swiss Chard, the hardy beast of the green party, nothing can take it down not even a British winter and this was the first of the new year crop. At this pak-choi sized stage the leaves and stalks can remain wedded in the pan, as they cook at almost the same speed, and the leaves have not yet developed the super-metallic tang they pick up as the season progresses. A small lake of butter meant we deployed more bread and forgot about the cholesterol count.

The Portugese love pork and clams and so do I, there is a love there that is greater than the love between men. 15 makes it British-ish by adding slow braised pig cheek. The fat was gluey in a very good way; it stuck to the teeth like candy floss and was sweet like honey. This suited the clams very well, served in their shells and smugly plumply briny. White beans added extra protein and sucked up some of the surrounding juices and the laver bread, that peculiar Welsh staple, was an interesting cast member, but here it looked good but only really mumbled its part.

And then there were sweetbreads, an excellent foodstuff to freak out Americans I always find. They need a careful hand in the cooking; the sweetbreads, not Americans, and these were done very well. The texture resistant at first then morphing into the requisite creaminess and served with crisp purple sprouting broccoli and new season garlic. Our French waiter looked on approvingly, his smart service a model of only being at table when needed and not to keep pointlessly topping up the water every few minutes.

We were told there was a standard delay of 15 minutes for the Hazelnut madeleines, which would have seriously inconvenienced Proust, but didn’t bother J who elected to wait despite my increasingly itchy feet. When it arrived it didn’t prompt any buried childhood memories in him and when I asked him later what it had tasted like he couldn’t remember that either.  Ah well, so desserts didn’t quite do it.

The main thing is that this visit to Jamie’s 15 erased the bad memory of my first one. The food felt good and was properly priced, and the staff were as professional as can be. As a place for a democratic meal, something for everyone and as a post workstation drink and a nibble it seems to hit all the right notes.

The only shame is that 15 was allowed to be subpar for so long before Jamie realised that even liberals won’t put up with bad food for a good cause for ever.  The good news is that Jamie’s 15 no longer needs a charitable review.

Blessed are the cheese makers

Happy in his work

‘I don’t like getting up too early, so I don’t,’ says Philip Wilton  of Wildes Cheese leading me into his dairy. Outside far from being a vista of green fields and rolling hills, the view is of grey skies glowering over the streets of North London, as well as the bulk of Spurs’ football stadium just down the road.

‘You should have seen this place when I took it on,’ adds Philip as we wet our shoe soles in antiseptic and put on white coats, ‘it was a right mess.’ Actually he uses a stronger description; his cheerful conversation is peppered with expletives. He has created a proper dairy, three fully fitted out rooms, in a tiny unit on an anonymous industrial estate, a dairy so small you couldn’t swing a kitten in it, much less a cat. 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 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