Month: September 2010

St John Bread and Wine – Spitalfields

I’ve been putting off writing about St John Bread and Wine because of the absolute massive task it has inevitably become.

It was my friend Martin’s birthday. He’s a foodie, works in the business and has an affinity for St John. I don’t blame him. If you want an authentic, consistent and all-together memorable meal, you need look nowhere else than Fergus Henderson. The last time I was at St John-proper, I had one of the best dining experiences of my life (followed by the most epic food coma I’ve ever experienced).

St John Bread and Wine is the Farringdon restaurant’s little brother. It features more attractively priced small plates than the bigger main dishes than St John-proper. And because it’s in Shoreditch, for entertainment, we were treated to the likes of ridiculous hipsters wearing completely inappropriate Lady Gaga-inspired underwear as outerwear clothes:

With a party of 8, we were able to sample nearly every dish on the menu (save for the Blood cake and Duck Egg which was sold out. Kang of London Eater-fame, however, was luckily enough to try it, which you can read about here). The menu changes daily, but they have some favourites I’ve seen crop up on other reviews.

We started off with the Cured Duck and Chickweed, an excellent dish of moreish shreds of meat with a light mustard sauce.

The Braised Veal Shoulder with Chard, a Quail’s Egg and Boiled Potatoes with Green Sauce was a surprising delight. I love veal, and I was expecting it to be the main driving force behind the plate. It wasn’t. Instead, it was the combination of lightly-salted potatoes with an excellent rich sauce that made it.  This ended up being on of my favourites of the meal.

The Middlewhite Faggot with Peas was also a winner.  I’d never had Faggot before, but St John is one of those places that you just have to trust to deliver something delicious even if it’s not the type of food you’re used to eating every day. Made from meat off-cuts and offal (otherwise known as the ‘icky bits), this meatball of sorts was rich and glorious. There is usually some incarnation of this dish on the menu every week, and I suggest that even the squeamish give it a go. It really is fantastic.

The Foie Gras and Duck Liver Toast was a slight disappointment after getting off to such a good start. While St John is deservedly famed for their delicious bread, the spread on top completely overshadowed it. A bit too salty for the palette, it tasted like any other pate I’ve had. Unfortunately, nothing special here.

The Pig’s head and Carrots was the other disappointment of the afternoon. I spent nearly the entire meal wondering what the presentation of this dish would be. More like a stew than anything else, I’d say it was just generally unremarkable. There were few defining characteristics from the pork itself to the vegetables and stock that accompanied it.

The Pigeon and Beetroot was one I insisted upon getting. I’ve had St John pigeon before, and again, it didn’t disappoint.  There’s something about a gamy bird and the sweetness of beetroot that will always make the senses tingle.

A huge surprise, and fantastic way to end the main part was the Roast Chicken. I usually stay away from chicken on menus. It’s too conventional,too boring, but this is something I’d gladly get again. Served with caramelised onion and a rich white sauce I can’t quite remember the name of, it was perfectly tender and balanced dish.

Desserts were a hit and miss affair for me.  We split between us several of them, including the Sticky Toffee Pudding.  This was stated on the menu as ‘For two’, but realistically it was large enough for four people each to have a healthy portion.  Stuffed with nuts and drizzled with a rich caramel sauce, this was a very rich dessert. I could immediately feel the food coma start to settle in.

The food coma didn’t stop me from trying the other desserts though, including the Berry Tart with Vanilla Ice-cream and the famed Eccles Cake & Lancashire Cheese. Both of these were a miss for me.  A little too dry for my taste.

The Dark Chocolate Torte with Strawberries and Ice Cream was, I believe, flourless – something I’ve never been a fan of. Even though you could consider me a chocolate freak, flourless dark chocolate is just too much. I think it was for everyone, because out of all the desserts, this one was left half-eaten.

The only real downside to the meal, apart from a couple ‘miss’ menu items was the service.  It was S-L-O-W.  they were busy, sure – but I saw absolutely no sense of urgency or politeness from our server.  On the contrary, he looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than at work.  It took ages to flag him down even to just get drinks at the beginning of the meal. The food was slow to come out (understandably not his fault), but he made no attempt to give us any status updates on certain dishes when we enquired after – in some cases – a half hour of waiting.  I’m hoping it was an off day, and the food more than makes up for it, but I would advise against going during a rush or if you’re in a hurry.

Overall though, St John Bread and Wine is a marvelous addition to the St John family, and I would happily return. For 8 of us, with wine and service (though admittedly not all of us were drinking), it was just over £40 a head – a brilliant bargain for all we ate.

St John Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon

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The Warrington (second visit) – Maida Vale

The Warrington is a gorgeous pub. Decked out with thick carpets, rich mosaics and stained glass, the place looks like it’s straight out of a movie. It’s also local to me – so local that upon walking in earlier this week, I saw my absolutely bonkers downstairs neighbour enjoying a pint with people who I can only assume were friends crazy enough to hang out with him (for those who haven’t heard the story, he’s a mean bitter old man, and I don’t like him). The Warrington’s restaurant is upstairs. It’s much brighter. there are more whites and flowers – a much more diner-friendly tone.

The boy and I were here for The Warrington’s British Food Fortnight menu event – an autumn ingredient-inspired menu now being served at The Warrington for either £18 (2-courses) or £22 (3-courses).

We started out with the Bowl of Cornish clams, parsley, pear cider:

Followed by the DedhamVale salt beef, mixed bean salad and English mustard:

And the Colchester oysters two ways, natural and spiced Worcester sauce and bacon:

I was warned upon ordering that the bowl of clams included cream even though it wasn’t listed on the menu. As soon as it was brought I wondered why they didn’t list it as an ingredient. It was pretty much the only thing the clams were soaked in. Apart from the flashes of green parsley, I wouldn’t have been able to tell that there was anything else in it, apart from cream.  It was a very difficult task finding any hints of pear cider or even the taste of the clams themselves.

The salt beef was better. A creamy texture and enough mustard that your nose slightly flares if you breathe in too quickly.  It was gobbled up by the boy very quickly, which is always a good sign.

I was split on the oysters. The cooked Worcester sauce and bacon oyster was lovely. The bacon on top was particularly tasty, reminding me of the uber-salty American bacon bits that I really shouldn’t like, but totally do. The raw oyster just wasn’t my bag, but I am certainly no connoisseur to tell you if it was quality or not.

Mains were the ‘Butcher’s choice’ selected cut of the day, which was a pork loin and garlic mash:

…and the Whole roasted sea bream, pickled cockles and lemon:

The pork loin, was the boy’s.  I am obligated to mention that the boy wants to be clear to the readers of this post that he absolutely loved it and thinks it’s one of the best dishes he’s had in ages. I, on the other hand wasn’t as inspired.  The first bite I tried was rather dry.  The glaze on top was on of those indeterminable brown sauces that neither add or detract from the meat itself. I didn’t think it was anything special.

The sea bream was lovely though! Also called dorade, depending on where you are in the world, the dish reminded me very much of the dorade I had at Ramsay’s maze. It’s a mild fish with a crispy skin that tends to take on the characteristics of whatever it’s served with – in this case the tartness of lemons and sea grit of the cockles.  It was put together well, and very tasty.

Desserts were the Selection of British cheeses with quince jelly:

and the Apple and blueberry crumble, clotted Jersey cream:

Is it a selection of British cheeses when there are only two? I’m not convinced. Although a very nice stilton and cheddar, they were – neither blew us over. The biscuits that accompanied the cheese were tasteless, resembling cardboard at best and the dollop of quince jelly (one of my favourite things in the world) was so small we were lucky to enjoy it with more than three bites of cheese.

The crumble wasn’t much better. The apples were so tart that whatever sugar was in the crumble topping cowered away, totally overpowered. It looked the part and was a perfect portion size, but unfortunately just wasn’t very good.

The Warrington, just like last time I went, was a mixed bag.  There are some great things on the menu, and many of them are executed flawlessly, but then they mess up on the most random or simple stuff. For a restaurant that Gordon Ramsay puts his name on, I’d expect better.

Full disclosure and a bit about the meal:

I was originally invited to come to a blogger event to sample the autumn menu, but the format of the evening changed, and I suddenly found myself dining with the boy, free of charge on behalf of Gordon Ramsay’s PR.

There’s been quite a bit of debate over the whole ‘invite to review’ posts, and out of this experience I’ve learned one thing: An off-the-street experience is key to any restaurant review. I’ve been to The Warrington before, so I know how it is, both service and food-wise (part of why I didn’t feel so bad).  I thought it would be interesting to compare the review experience to it, and it was.  I could talk about how accommodating everyone was, but it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what it would be like to go there if you read this review and decided to pop in, so I decided not to talk about it. What I can tell you is that the staff at The Warrington believe in what they do. The manager talked to every single table in the restaurant (and they weren’t all bloggers and journalists – though I did see TehBus, EssexEating and the lovely PearCafe there. Hello!); the staff smile when they talk about the food they serve and the patrons are regulars – chatting with each other, exchanging pleasantries from across the restaurant.  It’s nice to see.

It was a lovely experience, but it hasn’t changed my stance on ‘invite to review’ posts: I’m happy to come in and review anything whether I’m paying or not, but it has to be anonymous, and I’ll always disclose the nature of the agreement.

Warrington on Urbanspoon

Restaurant a la Cruz (Septima wine tasting) – Exmouth Market

It’s really tough having a food blog when you’re on a diet. Ever since Barcelona a few weeks ago, I’ve been watching what I eat. It’s been a horrible low carb, no dessert, no alcohol few weeks. Rubbish, in other words.  Before I went on holiday, however, I was invited to a wine tasting event in late September at Restaurant a la Cruz, a steak house tucked away just south of Exmouth Market in Farringdon – and not just any wine tasting… no…it was a 7-course Argentinian steak and wine feast with Septima Wines.  So even though I promised myself I would be good till the end of the month, it went out the window this past at Cruz. Oh well.

We started out the evening with a glass of sparkling surrounded by Cruz’s ‘asador’ – an authentic Argentinian open-flame barbecue designed to roast huge chunks of meat for large parties. Apparently, it’s the only one in London, and was super expensive to install.  Going in hungry, it was very hard not to salivate on the very thick glass that separated us from the gorgeous racks of beef and lamb.

Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long. Within minutes we were whisked away to Restaurant a la Cruz’s private dining area, where this nice-looking Beef Carpaccio was waiting for us, paired with a large pour of a apple-y Septima Chardonnay.

Next up, the Fillet Steak was one of my favourite cuts of the night. Served with a glass of almost-dark-rose-looking Septima Pinot Noir, this was a beautiful steak served medium-rare. It was oozy and juicy steak just as it should be. Drizzled on top was a slightly smoky mustard and wine sauce that I could have had more of.

The Mini Sirloin served with Salsa Criolla (a summery sauce of sliced onions with coriander, pickles beets, chili and tomatoes) and a pour of Septima’s best-selling Malbec, was unfortunately the opposite. Without a hint of pink in the middle, the steak was bone dry – and while the Criolla’s fresh tomatoes did a bit on the moisture front – the meat was DOA.

The Rib-eye Chimichurri picked things back up. I really loved the chimichurri sauce served on the side. It was heavy on the spice and oil – distinct aromas of coriander, cumin and chili really made it shine. The rib-eye was quality, not too fatty or chewy, just the way I like it.

By this point, I was full. I started eating one or two bites of the next dishes. It was a good decision, especially since the next plate had a buffet-eater’s worst nightmare: bread.

The Rump Mini-Sandwich, was nothing to speak of. Thin slices of beef tend to get overcooked to easily, and Cruz’s was no exception. It was dry dry dry. The redeemable feature of this course was that it was served with my favourite wine of the night: Septima’s Dia Malbec, a gutsy malbec full of dark fruit and soft tannins.

Paired with the Septima Dia Cabernet, was the Flank Steak. Things must have got a bit hazy at this point because in my notes I wrote: ‘Thin cuts not Cruz’s bag. Dry.’

The final course was the Roasted Lamb, paired with Septima’s Gran Reserva blend. This lovely pour (89 points Wine Spectator too!) is Septima’s favourite. Underpinned by Tannat grape and blended with Cab and Malbec, it was warm and jammy. I enjoyed it almost as much as the Dia Malbec.  The accompanying lamb was a bit too sweet for the wine, but the salty potatoes balanced it out a bit.

I’m really glad I got to try quite a bit of Restaurant a la Cruz’s range. I had heard some mixed reviews on the place, and I totally see why. The rib-eye, the fillet and the carpaccio were all excellent – just as good as you’d get at your best steakhouses in London, but the sirloin, flank and rump were all lacklustre dry slabs that I would have had a hard time paying good money for (considering the prices are all around £16-£25 per cut of meat).

The real stars of the evening though, were the Septima Argentinian wine pairings. All of the wines were easily drinkable and relatively inexpensive (most around £8-£17 a bottle depending where you go). A definite thumbs up for Septima.

And with that, I’m back on the diet.

Disclosure: I was invited by the lovely ladies at Relish to this free event with the fantastic company of about 20 other food and drink bloggers, including the fantastic Ms Gourmet Chick, The Wine Sleuth, TikiChris, Boo in London, Ben Norum and Eats Drinks and Sleeps.

A la Cruz on Urbanspoon

Mosaica at the Factory – Wood Green

I’d bet a fortune that most Londoners (save for the ones that live near it) have never heard of Mosaica at the Factory. I wouldn’t blame them one bit. First off, it’s in Wood Green. Second, it’s in the middle of a dodgy looking industrial estate. Third, it’s hidden in an old factory. And finally, the sign for the restaurant is about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and you have to weave your way down a long corridor past what looks like an office reception security guard to find it.

They don’t make it easy, but the ridiculous scavenger hunt you have to go through to get there is worth it. It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the X marks the spot pirate booty, if you will.

I found out about Mosaica from the boy who had – earlier that week – been taken there by one of his clients who has a studio on one of the upper floors of the factory. He didn’t stop talking about it for days, so I booked in a Sunday lunch, and off we went.

The restaurant is organised chaos. It’s an open-floor plan  with a small kitchen and rather large bar. There’s outdoor seating under an awning, and large comfy chairs throughout. It’s a bit dark, but cozy. The place looks like it was just thrown together, but in that painstaking ‘probably took months’ way.

I started out with the Parfait of Foie Gras with Pickles and Toast:

A healthy portion of pate, I only wished I had more of the delicious toast to spread it on. It was rather rich, but the saltiness of the capers brought it back down to earth.

The other starter was a Goat’s Cheese Salad with Balsamic Glaze:

Warm creamy goat’s cheese over fresh leaves topped with a bit of pesto, if I remember correctly.  Although it’s not exactly rocket science to put together a dish like this, it was a lovely summer salad.

I went with the BBQ Ribs and Chips for my main.  I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.  I mean, Christ, LOOK AT IT! It was at least 7 inches tall.

The three racks of ribs were oddly inconsistent.  While the top portion was dry and tough, the stack descended into what ribs should be: slightly sweet, slightly spicey very messy sauce over tender meat that falls off the bone. Serving them on a bed of chips was a mistake though. Anything resembling a crisp fried potato shard was completely destroyed by the weight of the glittering tower of meat.

The boy went with the Roast Chicken:

A fine specimen, but nothing particularly noteworthy. It was a good roast, but that’s it.

We left happy, far too stuffed for dessert.

For Wood Green, Mosaica is exorbinantly expensive (with wine, food and service the bill was about £70), but if you plopped it in the middle of Soho, it would be a steal – especially with the amount of food you get.  In any case, if you fancy a bit of adventure and a trip up north, check it out.  Just make sure you take a map.  And, if you have a TasteLondon card, you get 50% off your first visit, which makes it even more worth it.

Mosaica, the Chocolate Factory on Urbanspoon

Beach Blanket Babylon – Shoreditch

Beach Blanket Babylon looks like someone took a beach hut, decked it in black chandeliers and velvet, and decided that it somehow warranted charging £11 for a drink. It’s the sort of place that tries really hard to be good, but when you strip out all the glitz, it’s still just a shack with a nice view.

I started with the calamari, which was served in a bamboo basket with a Japanese soup spoon full of aioli. The calamari was cooked nicely, but was largely devoid of any flavour in the batter, instead relying on the fairly rich dipping sauce to give it a bit of oomph.

We also had the liver pate, served with bread and a leafy salad.

The pate, looking more like bland paste, wasn’t very nice at all.  The presentation was horrible, and the ‘bread’ was nothing more than white bread with the crusts cut off. The sort of bread you can get in any random corner shop.  I was not a fan.

Luck turned with my main, a lovely seabass served over fennel and oranges.

The skin was crispy while the fish oh-so-tender. The fennel and orange gave it a nice summer freshness that meant I did not feel overstuffed after eating it.  I couldn’t have had any more or any less.

The fish and chips, however, were, like the calamari tasteless and overly greasy. The chips/fries were so overdone you couldn’t even tell they used to be potatoes.  The mushy peas (also served in a soup spoon) went largely untouched, due to the worst combination of no taste up front and a weird aftertaste.

I should have listened to others on this one.  The whole bill came to around £90 including 1 glass of wine, 1 beer and service (luckily I had a voucher or else I’d be hopping mad). I’d say it would be a good atmosphere to go have drinks at, but really, no amount of nice decor would make it worth it.

Beach Blanket Babylon on Urbanspoon

Bejoy Tandoori – Bounds Green

There’s a place – a little, unassuming Indian restaurant in Bounds Green (an area in London which I’ve found most people have never heard of. Hint: one stop north of Wood Geen on the Piccadilly line).

The boy lives way up there, and sometimes as a treat after sharing a bottle of wine at the pub down the road, we’ll grab a Saturday night curry. It’s never busy inside, but their takeaway business is hopping, so I think they do well.  The owners and servers (likely family and friends) are sweet and attentive; the food is cheap (we eat like kings and the bill is usually under £30 for the two of us including wine); and everything is delicious.

I don’t take pictures every time I’m there because if there’s one thing they lack on, it’s presentation – and really, there’s no point in me telling you how good the Lamb Dahl and Saag Paneer is (it just is). Just saying, if you ever find yourself so far north you think you might just be in Scotland, check out Bejoy Tandoori. It’s lovely.

P.S. Apologies for the long break in posting. I was off in lovely Barcelona for the Bank Holiday week. Had a lovely time, but didn’t eat anything of particular brilliance apart from Japanese and pizza (which of course, are soo not Catalan cuisine).  Ah well – can’t win ’em all.

Bejoy Tandoori on Urbanspoon