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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…

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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. 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.

Argentine action. Cooking the ‘Tapa de Ancho’ at Gaucho

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